Sunday, 14 September 2014

all the right moves, all the wrong words

Another year, another summer made fractious by the Edinburgh fringe. Even opening the programme this year made me feel queasy: I marked performances, turned the corners of its pages, feeling like I was wading through the Argos catalogue, consuming consuming consuming. And although I was careful and made sure I had lots of space for conversations and walking and a balanced diet of cake and fruit, and although I took almost no risks and so almost everything I saw felt meaningful, smart, exhilarating sometimes, nourishing other times, I still ended up glutted and sick. So since then I haven't been going to the theatre. I haven't even been able to look at theatre listings. Instead I've had stillness. Other doings and beings. And before I re-enter the fray – despite all misgivings, a sense of superfluity, and the fear that writing about theatre is no longer the thing I love – a celebration: of things I've been able to do because I haven't been witnessing in the dark...

1: Most of the recipes involve 150ml of double cream. Most of the recipes display an astonishing lack of concern about the environmental impact of eating so much meat. Most of the recipes involve tablespoons of chilli and ginger and spice concoctions that I haven't been able to use since starting to cook family meals five years ago. But Nigel Slater's Eat is the most inspiring, I-want-to-make-that-inhale-that-savour-that cookbook I've read in aeons. And not just because it's the only cookbook I've read in aeons. Snip-snap sentences. Unctuous language that sizzles and simmers and glistens on the page. The first thing I cooked from it was a chicken and farro recipe that I sold to the children as an Italian version of chocolate rice and they ate it and didn't whinge once. Result.

2: In my list of top 10 albums of all time and ever that is at least 500 albums long, Father John Misty's Fear Fun is, it's emerged, somewhere in the elastic top two. I keep posting Now I'm Learning To Love the War on here, but there's also this one


and this one


and this one



And still I'm startled by its country twang, but I grew up on Dolly and Willie and Kris, and took myself deeper backwoods, through the dark mysteries of the Appalachians, and country feels like home. In any case, it's not the style but the voice, so plangent, a deep seam of disappointment in which he mines still for hope:

Before the star of the morning comes looking for me
I would like to abuse my lungs
Smoke everything in sight with every girl I've ever loved
Ride around the wreckage on a horse knee-deep in blood

I listen to that voice and I swoon.

3: I've been getting a lot of emailing done, sitting at the table beside my husband on the sofa watching TV, and I haven't quite followed The Honourable Woman but Orange Is the New Black has lesbian sex – romantic, playful, teasing, functional, aggressive, tender lesbian sex – and it's proving very distracting. I'm not always convinced by the glossiness of its surface, but there's enough feminist nous and queer abrasion beneath to make me want to down tools and just watch.

4a: I read Donald Barthelme's The School in an anthology of short stories 19 years ago and every synapse shivered. I ran off a dozen photocopies and used it as a secret handshake; last week I sent the link to Churlish Meg and realised I still think of it as a soul gift. Originally it was published in a collection called Amateurs, which I bought in the days of scouring secondhand bookshelves for Brautigan and Barthelme and names that don't begin with B, but only got around to reading in August; The School remains my favourite story ever written, and Rebecca might turn out to be the second.

4b: From the days when the chimneys of Battersea Power Station, those crumbling columns that puncture the sky as the children and I walk to and from school, still reconfigured the clouds with smoke; from the days of open racism and closed abortion and communities of women laughing in the soapsuds of laundries; from the days when warehouses weren't apartments for the wealthy but factories employing the poor; from that moment of transition, between the demolition of slums and the rise of estates, Nell Dunn's Up the Junction emerges so vivid, so raw, that reading it made me gasp. London has moved on from there but how far I'm not sure. The tale of the Tally Man captures an exploitation of poverty that abusively persists; the desperation of teenagers, for a fuck, for an approximation of freedom, that doesn't change. Dunn writes elliptically, mostly in dialogue, rough jottings scrawled on the hoof, in the dark; it's social realism, but compressed, made poetic, edited with lapidarian skill. Reading her and Barthelme has not only made me want to write again, but rethink how.

4c: Page after page of D.I.Y, the manual for theatre-makers edited by Robert Daniels, inspires and soothes with its generosity and common-sense. It's reminded me why I keep saying yes to theatre instead of doing the writing that requires me to sit on my own at a computer hour after hour. It's reminded me to listen to the Mountain Goats more. It's reminded me to treasure my shift away from being a “professional”, why it's important to keep struggling in the unknown. Above all, it's reminded me that:

We are humans. We have feelings, we have souls. Don't beat yourself up about your practice. Ever. It is the self-loathing and doubt that delays EVERYTHING. Imagine yourself as a baby, if you keep being mean to a baby, it will hate you and poop out all sorts of nonsense to punish you. Take care of yourself. Be kind. Give yourself time, chocolate, holidays and a fucking break. Negativity breeds contempt. Happy artists make good art.

Not for the first time this year, reading that makes me want to give Bryony Kimmings a great big kiss.

5: This doesn't count because we went in the daytime but the Doll Museum in Dunster is one of the strangest places I've ever been. Arguably I write about theatre now because of a B&B in Scarborough whose eerie parlour was crowded with dolls: tiny dolls, foreign dolls, dolls to my thighs that lined the stairs as if waiting to trip me up or push me down. The Doll Museum in Dunster was that room to a factor of three, all staring eyes and twisted limbs and fraying national costume. A repository of white colonial thinking on history, class and race. But at the same time, a really fun place to take my daughter. Weird.

6a: And OK, there were two nights at the theatre. The first was the Benedict Andrews/Gillian Anderson Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, which bored me to itchiness. I couldn't unthink the Secret Theatre's version: the musicality of its European accents; the sensual melt of ice-cream, the crack of watermelons, the ice spill of water; Leo Bill's humble, bumbling Mitch, with his bad jumpers and stuttering desire; the rejection of every lurid colour that Andrews and Anderson made garish again. The day after seeing it I hosted the Young Vic Two Boroughs Project Theatre Club on it with Lily Einhorn and we talked for well over an hour about how the play sits in Williams' oeuvre and how it relates to his biography; how the play isn't misogynist but an indictment, a really aggressive and scathing indictment, of patriarchal culture, not just the old patriarchy of America's old south but the bullying, entitled patriarchy of the emerging new south; women, age and feminism; how familiar aspects of the play felt to those of us in the group from ethnic backgrounds (including, on that particular night, Nigerian, Spanish, Indian and my own Cypriot); witnessed accounts of alcoholism, bipolar disorder, domestic violence; and on and on, a rich and involved and really smart discussion that was far more engrossing than the production itself.

6b: The second was Itai Erdal's How To Disappear Completely at BAC, seen on a night of such precarious, panic-streaked instability that even walking into the theatre was like punching myself in the brain. Oh well. Erdal is a lighting designer by training and his demeanour is scuffed and gauche, in a likeable way. He introduces his mother, his step-father, his furiously intelligent sister and gawky best friend, the way he might if we were sat around a pub table with him, making friends. One story, of an overexcited dugong, made me cry with laughter; but its overarching story just made me cry, because it traced his mother's demise, from cancer that spread through her body with relentless purpose, taking them all by surprise. Erdal speaks with the dangerous honesty of a child who hasn't yet learned to self-edit, the kind of honesty that provokes alternately alarm, disapproval and relief. And because he is a lighting designer, he makes us think about how stories are told in theatre, how emotions are manipulated through luminosity. I keep talking to people about this show, because its bravery startled me, and because its argument for assisted suicide has a clarity that makes it unimpeachable. But I also keep talking about it because Erdal's mother believed something about motherhood that I emphatically reject. She told both her children that it was vital for them to reproduce, because it's through their children that individual humans perpetuate their existence in the world. Such thinking is inimical to me, egotistical, and damaging in the ways intimated by Virginia Woolf, in a book I haven't read yet, quoted by Jacqueline Rose in a terrific essay on motherhood published in the LRB:

“In The Years, written on the eve of fascism, Virginia Woolf [comments] on the dire consequences of parental exclusivity, on the damage it does to the social fabric – which was on the point of being rent beyond repair – to think it right to put your child, your family, before everyone else. She is also suggesting that, while England takes pride in its difference from Nazi Germany, there might even so be a link between the overweening egoism of the bourgeois family and the autocracy of statehood.... At a family gathering in the mid-1930s … North, the now grown-up grandson of Colonel Pargiter, watches as people inquire after each other’s children:

My boy – my girl … they were saying. But they’re not interested in other people’s children, he observed. Only in their own; their own property; their own flesh and blood, which they would protect with the unsheathed claws of the primeval swamp, he thought … how then can we be civilised?”

Woolf, Rose concludes, is describing how “the intricacy and breadth of human possibility can be sidelined or quashed before it has even begun”. Yes, they're my children. But they are their own people. The least I can do is respect that. No, that's not true. The least I can do is not resent how, having made them, they eat up time and energy, leaving only scraps of both with which to make anything else.

7: Speaking of which:
A month of being home to tuck them in.
Reading bedtime stories.
Learning the times tables together.
(Never quite mastered the 7s or 9s).
Sitting at the computer with earphones on listening to Father John Misty so loudly that I can't hear their voices.
Talking about how I could be a better mother.
Her ideas include creative mealtimes inspired by typical menus in different historical periods, a designated painting space that doesn't always need tidying, and taking her to the theatre in the night-time.
A month of being present. And sometimes not coping with what that means.

8: Escaping not into the dark of the theatre but the light of the kitchen. One night I made chocolate cookies using an ounce of black treacle instead of golden syrup; they were fudgy, smoky, much more grown-up than I'd intended when adding most of a packet of white chocolate chips. Another night I made pastry with 20g cocoa, 100g flour, and 60g cold butter, rubbing them into crumbs as usual then blending in a tablespoon of golden syrup, pouring the crumbs into a loose-bottomed, buttered, 28cm tart tin and pressing them into the base and edges. That went into the fridge for 15 minutes then – covered with baking parchment and copper coins – into a preheated gas 4/180C oven for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile in a bowl 110g softened butter, 110g light muscovado, 110g ground almonds and one egg, beaten with a fork until amalgamated. Out comes the pastry, off come the coins and parchment; over the chocolate base four or so tablespoons of apricot jam, spread almost but not quite to the edges, and over that the frangipane mix, smoothing its surface to cover not blend with the jam. That baked in the same oven for about 35 minutes, so when it came out it was still squodgy; in retrospect, another 10 minutes wouldn't have hurt it. Still, the bitter crumble of the chocolate crust and sweet melt of fruit and frangipane was heavenly. And even better the next day.

9: The mother in the Dardennes brothers' film Two Days, One Night makes a tart, too, a really crisp-looking fruit tart that the family share after takeaway pizzas. And then she sobs that she's invisible, irrelevant, I can't remember the exact words but that's because approximations of them had been ringing through my head all that day. And the day before that. And before that. It's not an easy film to watch, and not just because she keeps having anxiety attacks and crying and snapping at her husband when he expresses concern at her taking Xanax. She spends a weekend traipsing around the houses and haunts of all her co-workers, trying to persuade them to take her back at the factory where they earn so little that many of these people need to take on secret second jobs to get by, trying to do this knowing that if they take her back they won't each get a thousand-euro bonus that might relieve the pressure in their own lives. Sometimes on train journeys through London's suburbs I feel stifled by the number of houses, people, stories in this city; Two Days, One Night enters those houses, talks to those people, listens to their stories, and sympathises. And even where it doesn't sympathise, it attempts to respect. This made it not an enjoyable film so much as a sternly moral film whose politics I share.

10: I'm speedwriting now because it's getting late. And because I'd like to write about Cate Le Bon and the gig at Koko (a stronger performance than the one I saw in February, but I missed being close to the stage), about the wild magic of her voice and the angular jolt of her guitar, and how she makes me wish I could sing, about standing on the balcony of Koko between two of my oldest friends, the same people I've been sharing angular jolting guitars and wild magic voices with for over 20 years now, and all the history between us, the honesty and safety, but I've been writing this listening obsessively to Perfume Genius, all three albums, and now his voice is all I know of music. He was a surprise guest at Koko and for those few minutes when he sang I thought I was levitating. I can't get a handle on his albums: they're so intimate, and yet something in them resists intimacy. I think it's a problem of timing: they'll make more sense alone in the dark. I should have been writing about the new one tonight instead of writing this. I should have been doing all sorts of things all day instead of writing this. Seduced by the wrong words again.




Monday, 18 August 2014

each in their own way flailing

It's Thursday 24 July and for the third night this week a man is stood below my sitting-room window, singing. Once upon a time I dreamed of being serenaded like this, by some floppy-haired indie-boy-prince of my dreams, but reality is crueller than fancy. What this stranger calls singing is obstreperous, grinding, brutally unintelligible; a noise steadfast and oppressive as the roar of machinery. On the first two nights I think about calling the police, and then I remember the treatment that someone who might be homeless and might be alcoholic and might be mentally unstable is likely to get at the hands of the Met and berate myself for my lack of patience or understanding. I think about going downstairs and trying to talk to him but shrink in fear of what power a man who has apparently lost all sense of spacial or social awareness might be able to wield over me. On the third night I give up trying to work to this enervating soundtrack and stand by the window and watch him. He wears a black leather jacket and carries a violin case over his shoulder and mostly his hair is grey. Sometimes he sits on the stoop directly below, swaying and stamping an unruly punctuation. Sometimes he follows other men across the road, kicks at the bins, wanders into the distance, the volume barely decreasing. For a few glorious minutes he is quiet, and I discover it's because the young homeless man with the gentle smile is rolling him a cigarette and talking calmly with him, a gesture of fathomless generosity. (Later, when I ask the young homeless man about this encounter, he has no idea who I'm talking about. The men who speak to him are interchangeable.)

When the ranting begins again, I do my best to tune in my hearing, dialling through the static until I hit the man's frequency. What emerges, on repeat, is a word, “misunderstood”, and a question: “Why won't they just let me be?” In a flash, I'm reminded of Dave, the drunk homeless character in Stella Duffy's The Room of Lost Things, once married and a businessman, now accustomed to the simple routine of living in a lager-fuelled haze on a moulding sofa dumped on a backstreet. Dave has found, if not contentment, at least a dull calm. But this man is neither content nor calm. He is the embodiment of fury, of the sheer fucking insult that it is to be human and alive.

The following day, Friday 25 July, the man isn't on the street below my window. He's on stage at the Royal Court instead.

*

This Royal Court preview is my second encounter with Men in the Cities and I still can't hold this bit of text in my head. I was there for the first read-through in the rehearsal room, a small expectant group of us huddled round a table, Chris anxious and placatory of voice, his director, Wendy Hubbard, frowning as she annotates her script. I don't look at the script: I just listen. But I can't find the frequency for this specific torrent of words, unleashed by a bereaved father in the general direction of a 6-foot-9 gay black man who sings transcendentally on the glittering streets of Christmas. A torrent of words directed at patriarchy and capitalism and whatever that is up in the sky (God or the stars or maybe just satellites), defiant yet desperate for redemption. When Chris unleashes it he raises his voice and I'm instantly reminded of the preacher segment of God/Head, failing to notice the difference in register. In the rehearsal room, this feels like the least effective bit of text. But in the Royal Court, it feels electric.

I visited this rehearsal room only twice, seeing Chris work with text and intonation but not with movement or setting. Which means much of what I see on stage is a surprise. Intermittently I regret being part of the company, because it makes me unable to watch this preview for myself: instead I'm distracted by the rest of the audience. I note their laughter, the moments of frisson, and where their attention begins to wander. I note how nervous Chris sounds, not just at the beginning but throughout. I note the exactitude of Katharine Williams' lighting: the soft peach that envelops the young gay lovers, the harsher white cast on grit-hard Graham; I note how each click of the bulbs economically transforms the mood and the scene, making it distinct to each character. I note that I feel emotionally disconnected, and not fully convinced that the text is working.

But then Chris unleashes that torrential rant, and the way he twists his body around it is astonishing. As he shouts he clutches at the air, as if trying to prise answers from its atoms. Initially he leans into the microphone, then gradually pulls away, still ranting, but staggering now, flailing, stamping and swaying, bent over with the weight of anger and resentment and unbearable sorrow, drunk on the indignity of being human and alive. And the transcendent singing stops but the rant goes on, as steadfast and oppressive as the roar of machinery. My father and his father and his father. Misunderstood. Misunderstood. Misunderstood.

Later, as we walk down the stairs to the tube, my husband tells me he found this bit awkward, and thought that was because it wasn't working, but then he realised the awkwardness was his own, because the rant is abominably raw, and he wanted to protect himself from it.

Later still, in bed, staring into the dark, I remembered that I'd seen the staggering man another time. He was in a basement room in Shoreditch Town Hall. And this man didn't survive.

*

This latest bout of whatever it is – depression? Suffocating sadness? Desire to just fucking stop and live in a limbo of quiet, feeling nothing? – began to seep through me a few days before seeing Leo Kay's It's Like He's Knocking, on Friday 11 July. Sometimes the show feels like a dangerous place to be. It starts in a darkened bar, Kay raising a toast to “telling it like it is, even if you don't know how it was”. We each drink a shot but he drinks at least four, and there is something so careless in this action that the basement room in Shoreditch Town Hall begins to hum with worry for him. We move to another room, fitted up like a meagre bedsit, and anxiety grows. Alcohol ran through the blood of his forefathers, and depression, and loneliness, and uncertainty. My father and his father and his father, Kay cries, not in words so much as the pulse of the heart. This is a story of wild coincidences and wilder adventure, and the overwhelming fear that, however damaged your ancestors, you will never, never live up to them. It's a story of choosing to live and choosing to die: and if you chose the latter, how would you do it? With a noose in the toilet or jumping off a tall building? Or the way Kay's grandfather chose, alone in a bedsit in the centre of London, with the door and windows sealed and the gas of the oven filling the room?

It's a dangerous place to be, but Kay offers a measure of care. He fills our eyes with beautiful images: the light that beams through a makeshift porthole on the ship that carried his grandfather to America; the descriptions of the women his grandfather loved; the glow of a beach in Israel. He fills our ears with gorgeous sounds: a charged exchange between tambourine and accordion; the growl of Leadbelly, the wash of the sea. Kay's own voice, the amber of whiskey, the keen of viola. On one wall he's pinned a note that reads, very roughly: depression grows in the gap between the story you tell about yourself and the truth. Like there's a truth. Kay's honesty feels like a gift: by now, in his early 40s, he'd thought he would be a father himself. And he didn't expect his father to have died. The show becomes a eulogy, for complicated relationships with difficult men, whose absence creates a void in the soul. A void Kay fills with this performance, dedicated to his father and his father, fragile and tender and spare.

But every time Kay reaches for a bottle, a shiver runs through the audience. There is relief in the fact of this work being a collaboration, with the audience who willingly engage in a wager (in a sense, to save him), and with a Brazilian musician whose thrumming soundtrack heightens the impression of extended ritual – a ritual that culminates in the summoning of a spirit, as Kay, now dressed in a suit, hair slicked back, throat burning with booze, re-creates with swaggering gestures an 8mm film in which his grandfather imitates Charlie Chaplin. Strobe lights flicker like the shake of the movie, and Kay – or his grandfather – stamps and sways and barely stays upright. And even if this is meant to be a happy film, I don't read joy in these flailing movements. Kay's grandfather is twisted or bent over with the weight of anger and resentment and unbearable sorrow. He is drunk with the indignity of being human and alive.

*

And now it's Thursday 14 August and I'm wondering if Chris has been really fucking irresponsible in detailing with such precision another way to die.

And I start thinking about Dead Line, by Jo Bannon: a show made to create space for people to face up to the inevitability of death. To talk about that with someone whose professional life puts them in close contact with death, and then think about it in solitude. I sat in its final room, bathed in light, gazing through the window at the milky sky and the distant activity of a public square, and wondered how long I've been frightened, not of death, but of living. Maybe I'm not thinking of the show itself but the conversation I had with Jo on the street after, in which she told me why she'd made this work, and I told her how I'd responded to it, together making a space for each other to talk about death openly and honestly, exactly as Dead Line had intended.

And I think back to the night before, Wednesday 13 August, when, on the insistence of my friend David, I went to see Scott Capurro. It's a complicated experience: part of me feels guilty for laughing at anything so relentlessly offensive, part of me relishes the scabrous insult and outrageous performance of it, part of me wishes that he were as inventive (or perhaps loving) with his misogyny as he is with his racism. But mostly I'm fascinated by the unexpected resonances with Men in the Cities. I hear it in the moment when Scott praises the audience for careful listening, because: “Listening is the most radical thing we can do.” And again in two startling, abrupt shifts in tone, the first fleeting, the second sustained. The show overruns because Scott, with absolute sincerity, gets carried away telling us about the final days of his mother's life, and the absurd events of her funeral. But when he talks about his mother, you can tell that his thoughts are also with Robin Williams, who died two days before. And those thoughts erupt mid-set, when Scott leans into the microphone and demands: “If you're funny and rich and successful and [I can't remember the fourth thing], and even you can't make it, what hope have the rest of us got?”

*

I see Men in the Cities on my own on Sunday 10 August and cry repeatedly and with a sense of release. Chris isn't nervous any more and I'm less distracted by the rest of the audience and I feel the play swell through me and I know that it works. It really fucking works.

I'm anxious about most things at the moment so it's no surprise that the thought of writing about Men in the Cities from the midst of indeterminate sadness or maybe depression and certainly a desire to sink into nothingness has been making me anxious. Chris is directly addressing a crisis among men, of mental illness leading to suicide, and much in the experience and perspective of his characters is specific to masculinity and distant from me. Me, whose experience of depressionorwhatever corresponds altogether too frequently to my menstrual cycle, which basically makes me a running joke. (Although my – male – GP told me last year that menstrual-depression is particularly hard to address so, y'know, fuck you with your snides and eye-rolls.) A few days after seeing Chris at the Royal Court I'm listening to Parquet Courts (brief aside: I fucking love Parquet Courts, and this piece from Rolling Stone is just perfect in its articulation of how idiotic and resplendent that feels), and more than once they narrate the same specificity and distance. Especially in this song:


so caustic in its delineation of the meagre opportunities afforded young men. Chris is talking about the violence wreaked on men, of all ages, by patriarchal structures of masculinity. I don't want my female/feminist self getting in the way.

On the face of it, Men in the Cities seems grievously non-feminist: there are almost no female characters – a dead wife is mentioned, and a divorced wife, plus two girls on scooters and a group of women doing yoga, mocked as fat and ridiculous, and that's pretty much it. But Chris isn't dealing with the face of things. He's digging much deeper than that, taking a scalpel to Conservative society to cut through the lie of its blustering surface, revealing everything broken and crushed beneath. The young man who commits suicide despite being in a loving relationship and the widowed ex-serviceman who no longer sees a world he believes in and the boy in primary school who cries in the bathroom because he has no idea how to be. The first time I encountered that boy, Rufus, in the rehearsal room, I thought he was repulsive. Absolutely fucking terrifying. He watches hardcore porn and attacks other boys in the school toilets and teases older men and treats pretty much everything – school, parents, bike – with contempt. But the moment Chris put him on stage, Rufus became... adorable. A little scared boy trying to be a man, and utterly confused about what that means. The scene from which the play takes its title, when Rufus stands before a work of art and feels himself welling up as he recognises its obstreperous, grinding, brutal humanity, is extraordinary. In Chris' words, each of the men in this work are “drawn contorted in a different way, in his own way, flailing. As though falling, or fallen, or twisted somehow or bent.” Exactly the same words could be used to describe each of the men in his play. Especially flailing: every single one of them is flailing, in a sea of what might be called depression or suffocating sadness, or simply loneliness. Loneliness oozes from these lives like slow poison. A loneliness heavy with anger and resentment and unbearable sorrow and the indignity of being alive.

The one balm Chris has to offer is feminism: a radical politics of empathic humanity that seeks to dismantle those repressive patriarchal structures and build more equitable, communal, supportive ways of living instead. “Can we not just put it all down,” Chris asks, except he's not really asking, because there's no question mark there, in the text or his delivery. Put down the competition and the aggression and the attitudes of destruction, and pick up compassion instead.

*

It's lunchtime on Thursday 14 August and my friend Jake tells me that if I want to stop writing about theatre then I should stop already. That's the thing about depressionorwhatever: the insecurity it brings on is just fucking boring. Later I fall while running, jolting the shoulder I broke in April, giving physical form to this pathetic inner fragility. Later I see Will Eno's Title and Deed, and it's basically a rehash of Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing), which is to say breathtakingly exquisite. I'm not exaggerating: there are several moments when my chest hurts from not being able to breathe. Maybe it's when the character – a man in middle age, flailing, lonely, twisted somehow, suffocating – says: “I don't want to paint too dreary a picture of my misery. I have laughed. … Don't pity me, is all I'm saying.” Or when he says: “I had occasion – this is embarrassing – to question my existence. Not in big ways.” Or when he says: “Time, place, happiness. It's only three words. I should have been able to figure it out.” Or when he says: “Women care more about the world. It's bigger for them. That's why it's sadder when they die.” Or when he says: “Don't get lost for too long. They stop looking eventually.” No matter how pitch-perfect Conor Lovett's performance – and really, the cadence of it, the fall of every comma and the breath of every pause, is just so – there's something off-key about Eno spoken in an Irish accent. My brain seems to perform a simultaneous translation into American. And another simultaneous translation into me.

Don't get lost for too long. They stop looking eventually.

*

And now I'm home and the children are still the children and the hours are still the hours and the confusion is still suffocating and the sadness is still heavy. I am human and I am alive and I am flailing. I read another terrific blogpost by Katherine Mitchell, on her experience of depression. And then I retreat to the kitchen and I bake. Recently I realised that whenever I make something particularly chocolatey and particularly unhealthy I want to share it with Chris, which is pretty fucking perverse considering he has diabetes. So as I baked on Saturday night I thought of Chris and this is the recipe I made and it's dedicated to him.

I've made this twice now, differently each time, and it's basically an off-the-top-of-my-head adaptation of a brownie recipe in the first Ottolenghi cookbook. Very roughly it involves putting a lot of chocolate (let's say 175g) and a lot of butter (also 175g) in a saucepan with a wodge of molasses sugar (125g or so) and heating it gently, stirring to melt the sugar. Very roughly it involves beating two eggs gently with a fork, stirring in 75g or so of light muscovado sugar, then stirring in maybe 100g of flour, or maybe 80g flour and 20g cocoa powder. Very roughly it involves lining an 18-20cm square baking tin with paper or foil and tipping half a jar of apricot jam in, preferably jam that has been lying around in the cupboard for over a year so you feel almost virtuous for using it up. Very roughly it involves stirring the chocolate-butter-sugar mixture into the egg-sugar-flour mixture, adding a few drops of vanilla or a shake of cinnamon or mixed spice if you want, or not bothering, as I did; then very roughly pouring the chocolate mixture over the jam and baking this in an oven heated to gas 3 or about 165 degrees for something like 25 minutes. What comes out – and you have to leave it in the tin for a bit before taking it out, otherwise the jam spills everywhere – is essentially a slapdash and graceless Sachertorte, and self-pity eating of the very highest order.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Meaning, value, and matters of opinion

Indulge me. I want to remember this one.

We're sitting at the dinner table, me and the kids, and my daughter – my restless, anxious, furiously competitive, fiercely brilliant (not, I hope, matter of opinion) daughter – starts asking me about boarding school. Which turns into a conversation about state and private schools, and why parents might choose to send their children to each place, and the class connotations attached to them. Children who go to private school are supposed to be more clever, aren't they, she remarks. Well, I explain, they have to pass an entrance exam, but they also have the opportunity to sit the exam, they have access. We talk about the reputation that attaches to different education systems, including university; the blanket accusation that Oxbridge people are privileged, that ignores the specific circumstances of them being there. Then she asks whether everyone who goes to art school becomes an artist. Actually, I say, a little maudlin, most of them become teachers. It's really hard to become an artist – at least, an artist who earns money from their work. You have to be really good to become an artist, she suggests. Well, yes, I propose, but I know a lot of people who are fantastic artists, yet struggle to earn money from it. I don't mean to be rude, she says, but I think that's just your opinion that they're really good. (At this point, it takes every ounce of effort not to laugh, not because what she says is funny, but because my brain is reeling at the way that, at seven, she sounds so grown up.) Her comment feels particularly barbed because I have, among others, Chris Goode in my head as we talk; there's truth in that, I admit – but as an artist, there are other ways of thinking about what you earn: you might not be rich in terms of money, but there's psychic value, you have a richness in your brain and in your heart. It's a chewy idea, for both of us. So we chew on it.

*

Between the NPO announcements (that tells you how long I've been writing this), reading the Brooklyn Commune Project's unspeakably brilliant document The View From Here, spending a Sunday morning with Jo Crowley talking about the #I'llShow You Mine campaign, trying to write Dialogue's first Grant for the Arts application, and discovering that in the three months following the end of my Guardian contract I barely earned £1500, I've been doing a lot of thinking about money lately. Money in relation to time, money in relation to value, and money in relation to ambition. I spent most of Autumn 2013 writing applications for the Arts Foundation award for cultural journalism, and what would have been a mind-bogglingly massive grant, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Arts Breakthrough Fund; both failed. I spent a lot of Spring 2014 thinking about funding applications, too, but peripherally this time: supporting Mary Paterson in applying for a Grant for the Arts for our new digital project Something Other; doing some editing work on LIFT's NPO application; and as an adjunct of Chris Goode & Company, also applying to be an NPO. Mary and LIFT both got the money, which is just as well, because otherwise I'd feel proper hexed now. Also, everything that follows might just read like sour grapes. Maybe that's all it is. But there's a resonance in the three rejections that has given me pause, and sharpened an ongoing question about the existent structures of money and the difficulty of establishing new ones.

I don't recall getting any feedback in my rejection letter from the Arts Foundation. My application was based on completing the CG&Co God/Head project (which I eventually did, between paid work), buckling down to the documentation of Dialogue's residency at BAC during their Summer 2013 Scratch season (which still languishes on the to-do list), and developing further “embedded criticism” projects with Dialogue (pretty much all possibilities in this direction have floundered over the past few months, due to the lack of my time/their money). My friend Matt Trueman was on the judging panel, so I asked him for feedback: he told me that the process had made him realise how important the audience is for journalism, and that my application fell down because there wasn't a clear sense of who the readership for my proposal would be.

My Paul Hamlyn feedback was brief but really positive, almost frustratingly so. I'd applied to establish Dialogue as a full-time organisation, with an advisory board, the means to commission, a publishing arm, a focus on community work, and a dedication to travelling across the UK, mentoring local critics and linking them into a national network. The judges were, I was told, very engaged in the idea, and felt I had a very distinct vision, but in the end they'd “preferred other applications”. Where I fell down was in the articulation of a long-term business plan: they couldn't see how Dialogue would become self-sufficient, or how I could create a sustainable income stream to take us beyond the Breakthrough Fund's three-year offer. Which is fair, because neither could I.

The rejection letter sent to CG&Co from ACE was the most infuriating, because that also contained the “we preferred other applications” line, which felt much more disheartening in this instance – a value judgement, almost. But I perked up looking at the bit on the feedback form about money. It recognised that the company demonstrates good financial health, realistic budgets and increasing turnover. But where, ACE wanted to know, was the “budgeting for office or utility costs”? It's all well and good wittering on about art, but if you're not planning for printer ink and paperclips, you clearly haven't a clue.

I'll be the first to admit I'm quite stupid when it comes to money. No, that's not it: I'm indifferent to money, until it feels like I haven't got any and I panic. But from that place of stupid indifference I feel like there's a correlation in all these rejections, which is less to do with money than a fault in imagination. Throughout the (very supportive) PHF process, I was assured that the Breakthrough Fund was particularly interested in helping nascent organisations flourish into full existence; Dialogue, however, was too nascent, and needed to demonstrate a recognisable business structure to encourage the Foundation to feel the money was going to reliable hands. There could be no learning on the job here. The Arts Foundation rubric suggested it was interested in “the changing landscape cultural journalism is currently going through”, yet Matt's feedback implied that writing for a known readership attached to trusted outlets was more attractive to the judges than striking out across that changing landscape to build a new audience. My favourite is the CG&Co stuff, which confirms something I'd suspected of the NPO application process all along: ACE is more concerned with accountancy than art. Its focus is on bricks and mortar, offices and bureaucracy, what CG&Co producer Ric Watts calls “lumbering infrastructure”. Not the ephemeral stuff that nourishes people and speaks to their lives. (When I was writing this earlier, I forgot that Ric and I had an email conversation about the presentation of a business plan not being a requirement of CG&Co's NPO application. He would happily have provided one, which would have demonstrated that the company runs a "pretty paperless" operation, if asked.)

I spent a chunk of June writing my first big essay on CG&Co (for an American journal, published in December), thinking across a few strands of its work. It led me back to a post on Chris' blog, from August 2010, quoting a passage from John Holloway's Crack Capitalism: “Stop making capitalism and do something else, something sensible, something beautiful and enjoyable. Stop creating the system that is destroying us.” The NPO is structured to support capitalism. But CG&Co aren't trying to make more capitalism: they're – we're – trying to make something else. The same is true of Dialogue, which rejects the commodity culture that's suffocating theatre criticism, and of me as a writer – which is, of course, why I've barely earned £1500 in the past three months, despite working constantly. (I think of this, the writing I do here, as work. That's probably a mistake. Also, when I say constantly, the last time I put in a 12-hour day was before the kids. But the kids are the hardest fucking work I know.)

Patriarchal social systems, capitalism included, renders those without money worthless. A lot of the conversation around NPO “success” or “failure” felt difficult to me, because – like with that “we preferred other applications” – it was loaded with value judgements. People who remained in the portfolio understandably, but thoughtlessly, represented their continued funding as an endorsement of their work, a sign of their value to ACE, to the arts, to the nation. Outside commentators offered their congratulations for this “well-deservedrecognition of ambition and great work”. What does that imply about those 58 organisations who were removed from the portfolio: was their work small-minded and mediocre? At one point on twitter, the argument was put forward that artists shouldn't be inside the establishment, but I find that difficult, too, because everything is the establishment. The landlord to whom you pay rent is part of the establishment. The shop where you buy food is part of the establishment. The electric lights you use when rehearsing and performing a show make you complicit in upholding the establishment. Try not to think so much about the truly staggering amount of oil that it takes to make a record...

There's a contradiction in all this that I find impossible to resolve. Even if you're not building capitalism, you still have to live in its world. If you want to build new structures in which value isn't measured in money, and be recognised and supported in doing so, you're going to need money to do it. Alan Lane of Slung Low and Tassos Stevens of Coney spoke brilliantly about this at the In Battalions festival: NPO funding has supported them in creating public work without charging for tickets and running a venue where audiences pay what they can (Slung Low), and locating their work within principles of generosity and social responsibility (Coney). Those companies would do those things without NPO funding. But my guess is they'd find it harder, not least because money is a magnet to money, funding attracts philanthropy, finance goes where finance already is.

In the midst of writing this, I was doing one of those tinkery internet searches that spirals in serendipitous directions and landed on an interview with Dave Eggers conducted in 2000 by a student from Harvard. Again, indulge me: I've still not read any of Eggers' books but adore him for his music writing. On Joanna Newsom: “Her music has changed my life and will, I'm sure, make me a better person. … [It's] making me braver, making me feel that with it I could ride a horse. Into battle. A big horse into a big battle. This music makes my heart feel stout, and enables me, with my eyes, to breathe fire.” On the appropriate response to the Libertines' Death on the Stairs: “You have to be moving for this one, because it's messy and fast, as if the Clash met the Jam and they went swimming in a dirty river. So walk along a crowded street. … Actually, don't walk. … You need to stop and do a dance. The dance you need to do is called the Charleston. ... Do it quickly! Don't slow down. Why? Because the song will know! The song is watching! You want the song to think it's not good enough for three minutes and 24 seconds of the Charleston? Jesus.” (I thought this was ridiculous but then I tried it and he's right.)

In the interview, Eggers gets really angry with the interviewer's repeated suggestion that he's selling out. Being critical, he argues, is easy, too easy. “To enjoy art one needs time, patience, and a generous heart,” he counters. “It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters.” And then comes the diatribe about money:

“A few months ago I wrote an article for Time magazine and was paid $12,000 for it. [Excuse me for interrupting but what the fucking $12,000 fuck!!!!!] I am about to write something, 1,000 words, 3 pages or so, for something called Forbes ASAP, and for that I will be paid $6,000. [!!!!!!!!!!] For two years, until five months ago, I was on the payroll of ESPN magazine, as a consultant and sometime contributor. I was paid handsomely for doing very little. Same with my stint at Esquire. ...

“Do I care about this money? I do. Will I keep this money? Very little of it. Within the year I will have given away almost a million dollars to about 100 charities and individuals, benefiting everything from hospice care to an artist who makes sculptures from Burger King bags. And the rest will be going into publishing books through McSweeney's. Would I have been able to publish McSweeney's if I had not worked at Esquire? Probably not. Where is the $6000 from Forbes going? To a guy named Joe Polevy, who wants to write a book about the effects of radiator noise on children in New England.”

And this, too, is the contradiction I struggle against. Eggers knows that it's absurd, an abomination, for a single person to acquire that much money. But he knows also that he can enable a lot of people, a lot of art, with it, creating a semblance of equality where the dominant structures would deny it. He accepts, to do that, he needs to play capitalism's game. He puts a positive spin on it: for him, all he's ever doing is saying yes to every offer that comes along. But it's still saying yes to capitalism's game.

Dialogue has existed for over two years now; it's something Jake and I do in our spare time, between jobs, between blogs, between (in my case) mothering. It has all sorts of high ideals: we want to engage more with community work, with work happening outside London, with mentoring young people – but we're failing to fulfil them because time and money are limited. Even saying that, I feel like the failure is in my imagination: for one thing, I've read enough John Berger to know that if you're equating time with money, as I do, constantly, you've let capitalist ideology gobble you up and become part of the problem. If I wanted it enough, I'd find more time, worry less about money, and just get on and do it. But what I consistently see that Jake and I can't do without money is extend our own collaboration or entice other people to work with us – not without the guilt of making people do stuff voluntarily, thus operating by the same neoliberal terms that I abhor. The frustration of that is excruciating.

*

Writing that essay on CG&Co for the American journal was also my first stab at writing about Stand, a verbatim show Chris made for a community centre in Oxford, as part of Oxford Playhouse's Plays Out strand, which aims to “connect people through theatre”. Stand is subtitled “Ordinary people changing the world”, and features six stories of people from the local community talking about their activism. It's a quiet show about speaking up, an undemonstrative show about demonstration. The words are delivered by actors, who perform sitting in a row, scripts on music stands just slightly to the left of their seats, small coffee tables to their right on each of which sits a single prop, barely used. The whole thing is so subdued that, especially with Chris' punk-raucous staging of Mad Man still ringing in my ears, it was hard at the beginning to stifle the thought that maybe, just maybe, I was a little bit bored. But Stand is a show that creeps up on you. And what creeps up is the idea that, although money bequeaths power, it's not essential for change. Real change needs patience and generosity and a fuckload of invisible work on something that matters.

The six characters, people, in a row from left to right are:

A man in his 80s who, every Thursday afternoon, stands outside a science lab protesting at the use of animal testing. He's done this for aeons and he limits himself to Thursday afternoon because outside of those hours he knows he'll be arrested.

A much younger man who, as a student, astonished the campaigns officer of his union by turning up at her door saying he wanted to get involved. Because no one ever does that. With friends he's set up the Reclaim Shakespeare Company to protest against the sponsorship of theatre by the fossil-fuel industry. They'll buy tickets for a show, sit near the front, then bounce on stage when everyone's in their seats and deliver an impassioned diatribe encouraging people to rip the BP logos from their programmes.

A woman, middle-aged, a mother, who insists she's not there in her own regard, but for her adopted daughter. She talks about how she “didn’t want to raise a timid child”, how she wanted her daughter to “be confident. To stand up for what's right.” She gleams with pride as she relates how her daughter, now in her early 20s, upbraided a posh woman on a bus for being rude about a homeless man.

A man, also middle-aged, a photographer who campaigned to save the alternative community that inhabited the Jericho boatyard in Oxford, and prevent its replacement with a development of luxury flats. The campaign was fraught and not wholly successful, and to a degree that broke his spirit. He gave up photography and works as an electrician now.

Another middle-aged woman who first made a stand when, at the age of about five, she led her brother into the middle of the road outside their house, to prove to him that: “We have a right to go anywhere we like.” She now works giving mental-health support to people who have come to Britain seeking asylum, often after experiencing torture in their own countries.

Lastly, a younger woman who has taken part in demonstrations such as Climate Camp, been arrested for supergluing herself to a chair in the office of a PR company identified to be in cahoots with the fracking industry, and now runs a workshop at the heart of Oxford dedicated to teaching people how to fix their bikes, and other make-do-and-mend practical skills necessary to combat waste. “There should be workshops in the middle of cities and communities,” she argues. “Shouldn’t all be commercial space.”

Although equal in passion and conviction, they come across as a disparate bunch. Some of them conform to the identikit of activism focused on in media reports, but others don't fit that picture at all. One of them is just a mum. Another's activism includes nothing more demonstrative than putting stickers on cars that park over pavements:

Until then it was almost like I was in a fever of rage, because I felt so powerless about injustice, and I think cars came to symbolise ‘might is right’, and oil-burning getting priority, and just that act of putting a small sticker on a windscreen, it was like cool air through my body. I no longer felt that fury, cos there was something I could do. Now I’m a middle-aged woman, and with a group of other middle-aged women, I have gone out from time to time stickering cars in broad daylight, and we’re invisible, because we’re middle-aged women.

It's a small act of defiance, this: anyone in the audience could do it. And that's where the power of Stand lies: in making activism not a separate activity, but something each of us can and should engage in. I thought when watching it of Harry Giles talking on twitter about the word activist, pointing out how off-putting it can be, a badge of honour forging solidarity among those who wear it proudly, but for the wary a barrier that prevents them joining in. In Stand, being an activist is no different from being a human who wants to respect other humans, and the environment, and acts accordingly.

But Stand's power – its ability to inspire empathy – also lies in the fact that not all of the activism to which these people dedicate themselves is successful. The photographer is exhausted by the stresses of working for the boatyard community. The octogenarian has campaigned against animal testing for most of his life, to no avail. To quote a recent Guardian headline, Government pushes ahead with fracking plan despite widespread opposition. A chord of failure reverberates through Stand – yet it doesn't condemn, and nor does it sentimentalise or overstate what activism can achieve. It quietly positions activism within the realm of ordinary activity, something that can sit within a weekly routine, regular as doing the laundry; or in the spaces between checking on a pudding in the oven. It argues that being an activist is part of being a parent: raising children to question the world as it is, and contribute to building a better one. It makes anti-capitalist activity, the work of building lives and communities around something other than commerce and exploitation, something we can engage in together. At any age, any stage in life. It feels like stealth dissidence. And that realisation had me walking out in a quiver of excitement.

That approachability – reassuring homeliness, almost – is supported by Stand's casting. So many of its actors would be recognisable from the television: there's Cassandra from Only Fools and Horses, and the girl from Press Gang, and that one was in Mona Lisa with Bob Hoskins. I abhor The Archers, so I've no idea if one of those voices was recognisable from The Archers, but maybe. The casting imbues the room with familiarity, safety, the comfort of nostalgia – and that acts as a cushion for stories that are present, challenging, unsafe sometimes, profoundly urgent. Stand was made with and for a community centre in Oxford, but – a few site-specific references aside – it isn't unique to that community, and resonates much further. It speaks to our time, and our responsibility, a responsibility given short shrift by those whose interest lies in preventing it. You can hear the cynicism activism struggles against when the woman running the community skill-centres says: “You’re collectively looking after everybody’s needs, so you kind of make a community and it feels very like – this is going to sound really hippie, but – it feels very loving.” Everything about anti-capitalism sounds hippie: naive, idealistic, misguided. Impossible to achieve. The narrative that says capitalism represents how humans naturally are is strong: it has to be, to keep us hypnotised by inevitability. Stand offers a different narrative. This is what we need art to do.

*

At another point during the intermittently rewarding, frequently frustrating In Battalions festival, someone remarked that most audience members have no idea what work goes into making a piece of theatre. Catherine Love wrote a thoughtful column about this at the start of the year, agreeing that: “Theatre tends to be notable for the erasure of its own work; we are invited to partake in illusions, to forget the labour that has produced what we witness on stage.” I re-read her column last month, and wondered whether the NPO funding structure justifies itself in that erasure, by paying for what's visible – the upkeep of buildings, the paperwork of evaluation and accountancy, “office or utility costs” – while successfully ignoring the invisible work of the rehearsal room and beyond.

For a couple of days in July, I popped into Chris' rehearsal room as he worked on Men in the Cities. I've started yet another Deliq post on that show, so won't say much about it here, but what struck me – more so than in other CG&Co rehearsal rooms – was how much work was necessary to transform that text, which Chris had already spent several months writing, into performance. Maybe I registered it more because there were so few people in the room: just Chris, his director Wendy and stage manager Hattie; sometimes Katherine and Naomi and Ric (lighting, set, producer) were there too, but the work that riveted and exercised me was the subtle, intricately detailed work of the voice. Work that is hidden and patient and essential to communicating with precision; work that involved argument, negotiation, justification (Wendy's sensibility is quite different from Chris', and she questions every choice he makes.) The difference between the first read-through and the first preview, in terms of where Chris was placing the stress in individual sentences, where he was modulating his voice to facilitate empathy or create distance, how he was guiding his audiences' relationships with his characters, was fascinating, but if I hadn't been to rehearsals, it would have remained invisible. Not the nuance itself, but the journey to it.

What does it mean to witness, and articulate, that work? I wish I knew – not least because this is the heart of that bloody essay on “embedded” criticism that I'm still struggling to write. Not least because, if I could find a way of positioning its value, I might find a way to get paid for it. Not least because I need a sense of meaning to justify doing this instead of earning money to support my family, doing this when (the patriarchal structures of motherhood keep reminding me that) I ought to be with my family. This isn't me fishing for compliments, from anyone but least of all from CG&Co, who give me a rare sense of psychic security in the world. It's me seeking a new language to articulate value and meaning, to myself and to the kids I so thoughtlessly brought into being, a value that doesn't relate to money, a meaning that doesn't reduce everything to productive, quantifiable work. A language that rides a big horse into a big battle, breathes fire from its eyes, and doesn't play capitalism's game.

Monday, 21 July 2014

break on through to the other side

I no longer know where this one starts. It's restarting at 1am on 21 July 2014, with just three days of school left before the summer holidays. It started 10 days ago, although I didn't know how to start, and panic set in at the thought that everything I'd wanted to say had disappeared. It started three weeks before that, in the midst of work-related despair at the pointlessness of my existence. That was the week I finally read Nicholas Ridout's Theatre & Ethics and for a brief galvanising interlude felt there was some purpose to this stupid thing I keep doing. The book is 70 densely argued yet gently repetitive pages scanning history and philosophical argument that ends with the most concise and exacting manifesto for theatre criticism I think I've ever encountered. Theatre isn't at its most ethical, Ridout posits, when “what the work says or does matches our own sense of what we would like it to say or do, corresponds with our own sense of how we would like the world to be”. For theatre to be ethical, it “would have to confront its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical”. Such work requires “a labour of critical thought for its ethical potential to be realised”, requires a critic to approach it “with uncertainty, with a view to the possibility of surprise, challenge or affront”. The way I read this, the theatre that's genuinely going to contribute to the shaping of a more humane, liveable, empathetic society is going to require the rigorous reading and storytelling of critics. So there's a reason to sit at the desk every not-so-spare hour of the day.

*

On Tuesday of that week, my friend Jake saw Christopher Brett Bailey's This Is How We Die and sent me a text assuring me I would fall apart watching it, in all the best ways. On Wednesday my twitter friend Megan saw This Is How We Die and tweeted to make sure I was going to see it because I would love it. On Thursday I saw This Is How We Die and spent the first 50 minutes wondering how I would confess to them both that it was good but not so blam-pow-whizz. And then The Thing happened and my whole body lurched and my insides felt bigger than my outsides, and I bought a ticket to see it again on Saturday, because this time – knowing what was coming – I could watch it with uncertainty. That sounds paradoxical, I know. It's that kind of show. (From here on, it's all spoilers. But the show is so full of ideas and images and language that I'll barely scrape the surface.)

It starts with Bailey sitting at a desk, a small table rather, small enough to make him look a little awkward and cramped. It starts with some methodical arranging of the script piled before him and the glass of water beside it, so that everything is positioned precisely so. It starts with a cheeky sort of hangdog half-smile, and then he leans into the microphone and it's like when a tap is broken and a fountain gushes out uncontrolled. Except every word is positioned precisely so. This opening speech – Beckett meets Burroughs – talks about masculinity and sex and violence and the seep of prison culture into everyday society, about apocalypse and living hell and the impossible weight of bringing children into this world, but most of all it talks about words, words as weapons, words that have lost all their meaning. How do we relate to each other in a world where language is abused and can't be trusted any more?

A line I've never forgotten, from the stapled pages of a typewritten book, hand-made by someone I loved long ago: “If you take a word out of context, what might it mean? (MEAN.)”

And then snap: This Is How We Die becomes a love story, a teen romance, the kind I grew up watching. Misfits against the world. Qui elevent leurs skinny fists comme antennas to heaven. In exquisite detail we follow the couple – Chris and a girl dressed all in black, immaculate beehive, a mouse, chain-smoking, where her mouth should be – to her parents' house for Sunday lunch. Her parents are grotesque, cartoon monsters, but she has described them to Chris with a surgical accuracy he almost can't fault. “God you are so literal,” he tells her admiringly. “I love that.”

She gives words meaning. She makes words mean.

Another shift: the girlfriend upbraids Chris for his carelessness with language. When you use language like that, she bristles, [you sound like] a misogynist. The accusation heralds an electrifying harangue from Chris, against the policing of thought through labels: that's racist, sexist, misogynist – not very humanist. Rewind to a line in the first section: PC has gone mad. Who's using these labels anyway? Are they really an expression of ethics? Of morality? Or just plain hypocrisy? Let's pause here and watch Panti Bliss speaking at the Abbey Theatre again, talking about oppression and self-hatred. This is the world Chris – or “Chris” – is wriggling within, in which the homophobic are victims of homophobia and white people get to tell people of colour what constitutes racism. It's enough to make your head spin.

Attack the -ism instead of the -ist, the girlfriend tells Chris. Not the individual but the concept. Smash the ideology. But it's hard when the words themselves are so unreliable, slipping and sliding against each other into contradiction. His only solace is to take everything she says at face value. Go fuck yourself, the girlfriend tells him. So he does. Literally.

It's important to know this about This Is How We Die: its thought, its politics, are fierce, incendiary, but it's also very funny in places, teasing as much as testing abuses of language. It's also, for a show so limited visually, just a man at a table speaking into a microphone, vivid to the point of lurid excess, as fascinating yet appalling in its colour as fresh vomit. The more disgusted Chris appears with language, the more he makes us hang on every word.

That was truer for me the second time I saw it than the first; in the road trip episode that comes next, I began to drift – to be honest, exactly as I would on a long car journey across flat plain lands, turning inwards, dreaming inconsequentially. Shaking that off in the second watch, I could appreciate its quiet reflection and troubled expression. Chris gazes out of the car window and thinks about America, and the arrogance of humans who think they know everything, about nature, and death, and what it is – oh god I love this line – to be “fucked up by static and watched over by satellites”. He knows he's repeating the moves, the poses, of a hundred indie movies, the barfly philosophy of almost every Beat or drugs book ever published, because culture, especially American culture, invades and absorbs us, and that's what teenagers do (I did, in the back seat of my auntie's car, driving through mountains in Greece, gazing up at a new angle on the stars, listening to the Swirlies and feeling nothing like my family, nothing like people at school). The lighting, positioned precisely so throughout, expands here into a long, thin sheet across the stage: it becomes widescreen cinematic, and so do the images conjured up by Chris' text.

This was also the point at which I began to marvel at how meticulous the piece is in construction and argument, and hear how words and lines repeat across the whole like musical refrains. The first episode begins with an excoriating delineation of masculinity; the “go fuck yourself” episode plays with notions of emasculation; the first line rages that “masculinity is measured in pussy”; on the road trip Chris muses on the triple meanings of the word pussy, its conflation with cowardice, and how impossible it is to square that with the bravery of vaginas. More than once, the couple raise their “fists at the sky or at God or maybe just the satellites”; on the road Chris is haunted by the reverberation of an A minor chord in the air; constantly he is drawn back to thinking about death and meaning and death and articulacy and death and fear and death.

Is it really about dying? I'm not sure. I think it's more about what it is to live without spirituality, on a planet so surrounded by satellites that it's no longer possible to trust our view of the stars, in which every mystery of the world can be crammed into a small metal box that fits in the palm of a hand, and we “cannot picture the future because we cannot imagine living through the present”. A sentiment that haunts me, from Kieran Hurley/AJ Taudevin's Chalk Farm (annoyingly, I can't quote the line accurately, because I haven't got the text to hand and, perhaps tellingly, no review I've encountered mentions it, despite it being, I think, the crux of the play): Why do we find it so much easier to imagine the end of the world, than more equal ways of living together? This Is How We Die is saturated in those visions of apocalypse. We are destroying each other with the stories we choose to create and share.

If I'm honest, though, I'm not sure how well I followed Chris' line of argument around climate change and environmental crisis. For instance, I can't quite tell if he's being sincere or sarcastic when he says (I think I got this down right): “I'm so glad there's no concrete proof that this planet is struggling to support the people alive on it.” It comes in between his descriptions of humans as an “arrogant hex of a species” who are “fixated on their own demise”, and before he suggests “maybe our species and our planet are in their infancy”. There's another echo here for me, of a brilliant children's book by Michael Foreman from 1972 called Dinosaurs and All That Rubbish, in which a single obnoxious businessman who represents the repugnant entirety of capitalist industry decides the planet he's covered with factories belching pollution is too ugly to bear, so he flies off in a rocket to search for a more beautiful place instead. Reaching a grey, rubbly star on which a single flower grows, he looks across space and sees a planet glowing sapphire and emerald in the distance: there, there is his paradise. Of course it's our Earth – but an Earth where dinosaurs have come back to life, broken up the roads, destroyed all the factories, and returned the land to verdancy. I think what Chris is saying is we have the potential to be that place of beauty again. But society has to change. Radically.

Again, even after a second watch there was something about the final episode that felt elusive. Chris transports us in a blink to a gladiatorial amphitheatre in which “we are humble, we are naked and unafraid”. (If all the stuff about looking up at the satellites longing for mystery hadn't already reminded me of Chris Goode's God/Head, this line definitely would have done it.) In this amphitheatre – and that “theatre” is part of what confuses me – the tongue is a blade in the mouth, a weapon, a whip, and again and again we – the we present in the arena, performing for a baying audience – “declare this language dead”. But if there is a death here, it is the ritualistic death of the phoenix, consumed by fire in order to live, brighter and better, again. Chris declares this language dead, and then – not alone, as part of a group, and that feels so crucial – he makes a new language. A language that rips through skin to pummel heart and gut, a language that bypasses meaning and goes straight for affect, a language that – like the language of Godspeed You Black Emperor – speaks plaintively, furiously, of everything that is fucked up in the world, but shimmers, always, with hope. A language made entirely of hope.

I keep describing This Is How We Die as episodic, but in the days and days it's taken me to write this I've realised it's more musical in structure than that makes it sound. Initially I thought it was symphonic, each episode or section a movement. But then I thought, no: it's like an album. Each episode is a song, and each song has its own mood and atmosphere and distinctive intensity, and the whole thing ends in extraordinary catharsis. And then I thought of albums like it, and I realised: Spiderland. Christopher Brett Bailey has made me theatre's Spiderland. And that, my friends, is how I die happy.





*

There's been some terrific writing inspired by This Is How We Die: by Megan Vaughan, who says of Bailey, “He’s the taste of cigarettes on a kiss”; by Catherine Love; and particularly by Andy Field, who does the inspired thing of sitting it side by side with Deborah Peason's The Future Show, to think about theatrical illusion, the visible script as accomplice, and the blissful release of nothingness. (I disagree with Andy on that final note: Debbie's release isn't blissful to me, and Chris' isn't into nothingness.) If This Is How We Die is Spiderland, The Future Show sits in the space between these two songs:




Which, because Deerhunter are genius at (well, everything, but in this particular instance) album sequencing, is the infinitesimal space between two tracks, which on vinyl is a silence full of texture, the barely audible static of natural electricity. A sentence that will mean nothing to an entire generation. (As an aside, one of these days I'll have to stop connecting everything I love to Deerhunter and actually write about why I love this fucking band so fucking much.) But it's also in the gap between two conjoined sentiments, the metal holding together two sides of a coin, between:

When you were young
you never knew which way you'd go
what was once grace, now undertows

and:

I don't want to get old
I don't want to get old
I don't want to get old, no

I first saw The Future Show in a diamantine 20-minute scratch showing in spring 2012; the next time I saw it, in summer 2013, it was more like an hour long, its basic premise, its single coruscating idea, unchanged but mined for everything it is worth. Debbie starts with her final breath in the performance, and the audience clapping; she describes leaving the space, chatting in the bar, going home, working the following day, the quiet rhythms of married life, maybe she gets a cat, maybe a parcel arrives when she's out, all those tiny inconsequential incidents that fill up time and make up a life, shaping her possible future with lapidarian skill, slowly, gently, inexorably as a tide, working her way to that final breath in the performance that, when it happens, is devastating. It is full of politics, yet what I remember of it, the residue of it that sits in my bones, is purely personal. It is so intimate that every word seems absolutely truthful, although a fiction, a projection, a fortune read from a palm. It is brave yet resigned, hopeful yet bleak; however we differ in our details, our endings are all the same. The best we can do? Measure each step, look straight ahead, and don't forget to breathe.



*

On the Friday night between my two run-ins with This Is How We Die I was at Ovalhouse again, for Greg Wohead's The Ted Bundy Project. A few months before its London run I had a lovely chat with Greg, who wanted to pick my brains about my different experiences of post-show gatherings, decompression spaces in which audiences could talk about and process difficult work. (In the end – at least, judging by the Ovalhouse run – Greg decided not to create such a space. Even so, I had another little moments of thinking, oh, maybe what I do isn't a total waste of time after all.) Sure enough, The Ted Bundy Project is hard to watch – how could a show about a serial killer not be? But nothing about it feels gratuitous, or anything less than painstakingly thoughtful. Unlike a really appalling quantity of culture, it isn't enthralled by violence, but nor does it condemn that fixation; it simply holds up a mirror and invites its audiences to see themselves. Whether or not you see that the reflection as ugly, distorted and brutalised is up to you.

It didn't occur to me, watching it, that people would find the structure of Greg's show, particularly his use of repetition, mystifying; it was a response I encountered at the Dialogue Theatre Club Jake Orr and I hosted directly afterwards. To me, every idea was expressed with subtlety but piercing clarity. This is what I saw:

A man, an all-American guy, medium build, winning smile, in a male equivalent of bridal white: pure, clean polo shirt and pristine tennis shorts. Doing a camp little dance to Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, the kind of dance that would endear him to the most conservative of mothers. A man who confesses to sitting in bed listening to the voice of a serial killer, over and over again; watching gory videos of murder, necrophilia, cannibalism online, and reaction videos made by people watching those same videos, a loop of hypnosis. We're intrigued, too, right? We're intrigued by all that material hidden there in the dark net, intrigued by the extremities of existence. Right?

A man, medium build, in pristine tennis whites, laying out the paraphernalia of Ted Bundy's first murder while Lou Reed drawls Walk on the Wild Side. I said hey honey, take a walk on the wild side. There's the sling Bundy wore to attract a woman's sympathy, the handcuffs he used to restrain her; a wig modelled on a victim's long brown hair, a handbag, some lipstick.

A man, winning smile, asking a member of the audience – also male – to join him on stage. He asks the second man to stand with a sheer stocking over his face, obscuring his features, his identity. This second man is standing in for Ted Bundy. Meanwhile, the first man, an all-American guy, in pristine tennis whites, puts on the wig, the handbag, the lipstick. And while Hall and Oates' Rich Girl plays, this young woman, a student, gazes at the face of the man who will turn out to be her murderer, her lower lip quivering with the beginning of sexual excitement. She is a rabbit in headlights, and she doesn't even know it. She is caught, and she doesn't know it. Because right now she is flattered, and attracted, and vaguely aware that she shouldn't be doing what she's doing. She's a rich girl, and she's gone too far, and watching her, Greg as her, with that song, so vindictive, my stomach clenched and I wanted to scream: no.

A man, medium build, in pristine tennis whites, standing with his head inside a sheer stocking, in the same place that his stand-in for Ted Bundy just stood. He repeats the opening section of the show. Whose voice is this now? Greg's? Or Bundy's?

A man, an all-American guy, winning smile, describing a murder fantasy he once indulged, of killing a teenage girl who filled him with jealousy, smashing her head until it turned into pulp.

A man, dancing to Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, the kind of dance that would endear him to the most conservative of mothers, while beside him on a plywood board is the opening scene of a video that can easily be located via Google, in which a man attacks another man with an icepick, before dismembering him, fucking the limbless torso, ripping out chunks of the corpse's flesh with his teeth, and inviting his dog to do the same. We know this because the man, this all-American guy with the winning smile, has described the video to us in detail. Even typing the words I can feel acid nausea sting in my throat.

And this is what I noticed:

Throughout, Greg is punctilious in naming Georgeann Hawkins, the murdered woman he chooses to represent all of Bundy's victims. In this, he distances himself from a voyeuristic tabloid culture that, for instance, no less consistently refers to Reeva Steenkamp as the girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius. And demonstrates an awareness of and sympathy with the Everyday Sexism campaign.

An awareness of and sympathy with 1970s feminist thought – contemporaneous with the deaths of a still unknown number of women at the hands of Ted Bundy – particularly (to quote my new favourite feminist, Sarah Ditum) Andrea Dworkin's “disturbing insights into the way patriarchy distorts the act of sex into an act of violence by which men assert their possession of women”.

The bravery of Greg's willingness to identify himself with Ted Bundy. In that business with the stocking, Greg admits that his own charming surface might not be so different from Bundy's, that he could be just like Bundy, because he lives within a social system – a patriarchal system – that is inherently misogynistic, in which “rape culture” is actually a thing, and in which popular culture does everything it can to support that system by fixating on the violent deaths of women in TV and cinema and literature, filling music videos with semi-naked women, using female objectification as a marketing tool, representing rape as a woman's fault, using topless women to sell newspapers, and on and on and on.

How visceral the fear of rape is in me. It dates back to school days, when I was given my first rape alarm in sex education lessons, and read Helen Zahavi's Dirty Weekend, a book in which a woman “conquers her fear and transforms herself from victim to avenger”: far from empowering me, it introduced me to realms of sexual violence I hadn't by that point imagined for myself, and that frighten me still. There is an extraordinary blog post by the playwright Katherine Mitchell delineating how this fear, inculcated in young women from the earliest possible age, can affect how they comport themselves for the rest of their lives, how an accumulation of experience of everyday sexism can affect their confidence and their sense of even having a voice. I felt almost dizzy when I read that blog post, from gratitude that someone had articulated this filthy secret buried deep inside me. A few weeks before seeing Greg's show, I went to Soho Theatre for Adrienne Truscott's Asking For It – subtitled “A one-lady rape about comedy starring her pussy and little else” – and had a similar experience. Truscott spends most of the show's running time wearing a tight-fitting dress split to reveal her pubic hair; she starts it downing cans of G&T; she does headstands and projects the faces of sexist men on her torso, allowing them to print themselves on her body. She is the very definition of asking for it. And while she does all this she mercilessly satirises men who espouse misogyny, picking at every loose thread of anti-abortion arguments and sexist politics and representations of rape in popular culture until it feels as though the whole world has unravelled. Her strip-tease is so mocking it made me cry with laughter; her run through common rape-prevention tips – pointing out how they're essentially designed to stop women ever feeling at ease as they have fun – is so contemptuous that it made me laugh with crying. Around this time, I came across the list of 10 things men can do to prevent rape (“9. Carry a rape whistle. If you find that you are about to rape someone, blow the whistle until someone comes to stop you.”), and that, too, was a balm to my soul.

In The Ted Bundy Project, Greg Wohead accepts responsibility for that fear, that violence, that everyday sexism.

The Ted Bundy Project “confront[s] its spectators or participants with something radically other, something that could not be assimilated by their existing understanding of the ethical. It … issue[s] a demand they [do] not know how to answer.” To skip a few pages back in Nicholas Ridout's Theatre & Ethics, it puts its audience “face to face with the other, in a recognition of our mutual vulnerability which encourages relationships based on openness, dialogue and a respect for difference”. I don't think for a moment Greg is asking his audience to respect Ted Bundy, or his actions. But he is asking that we empathise, with the man committing the violence, and the woman experiencing it. He is asking us to recognise, name and face up to this violence, so that, instead of allowing it to be perpetuated within a conspiracy of silence, we can work together – through openness and dialogue – to change the social systems in which it can flourish.