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.

Friday, 18 July 2014

See my friends

Among all the other things – plotting out a Dialogue residency at Forest Fringe during the Edinburgh festival and a London event for November; catching up on a heap of writing for here (for reasons I can't possibly explain, this is one of four posts I'm compiling simultaneously); getting back into gear with Fuel's New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project – and with the children's summer holiday about to land on me like an upright piano from a fourth-floor window, I'm trying to write my entry for an anthology of essays on theatre criticism being curated and edited by the redoubtable Duska Radosavljevic. It's on what mostly gets called “embedded criticism”, although I hope by the end of it to have come up with an equally catchy and user-friendly alternative term (unlikely); it's been on the cards since well before last Christmas, which obviously means I did nothing for months, started panicking at the beginning of June, then at the start of July vomited out a rough sketch of the entire thing, with a rapidity that could only mean that it was compiling itself in my subconscious while I slept. No wonder I kept waking up feeling exhausted. It's the second thing I've written of late that's required me to think almost biographically about my (still stupefying) relationship to Chris Goode & Company (the first was for an American journal, to be published in December). For the Duska essay I'm also thinking through my various experiences of critic-as-almost-dramaturg or critic-as-outside-ear or just critic-as-fellow-traveller with Peter McMaster and Andy Field, wondering what, if anything, I bring to either of them at the periphery of a making process. Right now, having not seen either of them for weeks, I haven't a clue: in those bits of the text, in big letters, all I've written is “ask Peter?” and “ask Andy?”.

The fuzziness is partly in the blurring of work into friendship, especially with Peter, who very quickly became one of the people I love most in the world, one of the rare people to whom I can confess all the secret thoughts that prickle inside, malevolent genies kept tight-sealed in bottles because if I unleashed them they would wreak devastation. Peter makes it possible to talk about the difficult things, the dangerous things. What he does personally, he aims to do politically, and in doing so work towards a redefinition of masculinity. We've talked often and fruitfully about how important it is to him not to sit back and expect feminism to sort the world out, but to gather with men to dismantle the patriarchal conception of masculinity, strip it of aggression, lay down its arms. How important it is for men to gather and talk about the violence of masculinity and patriarchal expectation, the way riot grrrl created safe spaces for women to gather and talk about how that violence expresses itself against them, physically and psychologically. His report on the retreat he organised as part of LADA's DIY programme last year is a beautiful record of his attempt to build such a space, questioning, fragile and loving.

He made another of those spaces in Wuthering Heights, the all-male confabulation with Emily Bronte's novel that sent me reeling when I saw it in November last year. I saw it again in Bristol at this year's Mayfest, and am already lining up to see it again in Edinburgh, trying really hard not to feel embarrassed by the assumptions people, friends, might make about me seeing a show repeatedly in which this person I adore appears naked. I wrote a fair bit about WH last year, because I wanted to remember it, remember all its hurt and anger and hope, and seeing it again was discombobulating, because it wasn't quite what I'd remembered and I kept fretting that I'd misrepresented it. But no: that first bit of writing sketched where WH was. It's travelled somewhere else since then.

That's partly to do with a cast change: Thom Scullion, who represented Heathcliff in last year's WH, has been replaced by Gary Gardiner, whose height – he's much taller, which makes him seem more imposing – and wiry physique, plus the fact that he's already a father to three children, creates a completely different energy on stage. I missed Thom, his gentle demeanour, but I think the show is probably stronger with Gary. Or maybe that new strongness is coming from somewhere else. From inside Peter himself.

It turned out I saw WH on a difficult night: it was their first of three Mayfest performances, the lighting rig wasn't in place at the venue when they arrived, they finished teching about 20 minutes before they were supposed to start, and so didn't have a run-through, let alone proper time to prepare. Peter told me afterwards the show ran a good quarter-hour shorter than it was supposed to because they forgot to do a bunch of stuff. So the sense of it being less diffuse, more direct and focused and certain than it was in November, could be accidental and false. But I'm pretty sure there's been a shift in emphasis, from a group of men struggling within the imagery of Wuthering Heights to figure out who they are and might be, to a group of men retelling the story of Wuthering Heights, and in doing so more confidently confronting an old idea of masculinity with the possibility of a new.

That means some of the more personal material has been shed: notably the section in which they look into the future, some of them thinking about children and what it might be to become a father. Gone, too, is the long coughing fit that I read as an expectoration of masculinity's malignancy from within. There's a sharper sense now of the horse, played by Nick Anderson, not just framing the narrative but shaping it from his perspective, simultaneously communicating incomprehension of and subjection to the vicissitudes of men. I feel like they spent more time in character in Bristol, less time scratching against their own skins. It made the questions section – when Peter, still dressed as Cathy's maid Nelly, stands before Heathcliff and unleashes a torrent of questions about fear, sexuality, violence, desire, and more, that lacerates his throat as it scours the air – no less powerful but more bearable: in November it stabbed inwards, in May it felt thrown outwards.

The biggest change, though, is in the inclusion of an extraordinary scene in which Nelly grooms the horse while Heathcliff and Cathy engage in a battle of wills. Gary's Heathcliff, an iron coil of aggression, paces after Murray Wason's Cathy, round and round the space enclosed by the audience's seats, cajoling her, luring her, taunting her, berating her. Cathy refuses all of it. He grabs at her, Cathy resists, tugs at her, Cathy wriggles free. He tears at her dress but Cathy doesn't care. She keeps walking, walking away from him, Heathcliff following, fighting to impose his will, Cathy rejecting, fighting back, until eventually Cathy is naked and the two of them are wrestling and still, still, Cathy won't give in. Meanwhile Peter's Nelly sits on the arched back of Nick's horse, combing his hair and feeding him an apple with a love and solicitude that are heart-rending. The contrast, of demand and offer, of brutality and tenderness, was electric. Watching Heathcliff grapple with a resistant, naked Cathy, I realised I was impulsively holding my breath, and suddenly my head was filled with this song:


I can't breathe with you looking at me. It was weird, being flooded by that song at that moment, because for months and months now, the music of Deerhunter has been the safest place I know, the place I go when I feel most alone. There was an odd sort of loneliness in the WH room that night: the audience around me seemed resistant, and I felt my distance from them acutely. But it was also weird because that song is dedicated to Jimmy Lee Lindsey Jr, better known as Matador musician Jay Reatard, who killed himself early in 2010. And it's a song about frustration, and furious isolation, and violent inner struggle, and what it is to be a man and live with the history and imagery of being a man. There's a beautiful bit of writing about it online, by Matthew Perpetua (such a great name):

I don’t like the word friend very much. Its meaning has been devalued by our culture... The classic values of friendship – of close friendship – are very important to me. I just wish we used better, more precise words to do justice to these kinds of relationships. … “Friend” is the word that rings out most in “He Would Have Laughed,” the final song on Deerhunter’s new album. “I know where my friends are now,” “Where did my friends go?,” “Where do your friends go?” These lines cut to the emotional core of the piece – loneliness, confusion, the self-defeating isolation of someone who keeps everyone at a distance. The song was written in memory of Jay Reatard, who was by most accounts a rather difficult and angry guy. I hear the song as being about the loss of a frustrating person, the kind who shuts you out, rejects your sentimentality, and behaves like an asshole. The kind of person you love and respect in spite of themselves, or how they treat you. I don’t hear judgment, or even grief in this music. All I hear is empathy and kindness.

He's kind of describing Heathcliff there, right? And those are the qualities that glow at the heart of Wuthering Heights: empathy and kindness.

Maybe it was the boldness of this scene, the clarity of its direction, that made me think the show is stronger now, and Peter stronger to have been able to make it. And this is what makes me excited about seeing WH again in Edinburgh: the idea that in the three months between, they might have found new ways to make it more impactful still.

*

This is the big change I've noticed in my theatre-going since beginning to take the process-not-product approach that I'm attempting to articulate in the Duska essay: I make the effort now to see work more than once, at multiple stages of development. I thought that was mostly commitment-related: of course I'd see a Chris Goode & Company show several times; working with Fuel hosting post-show Theatre Clubs as part of NTiYN, of course I'd see shows in many venues. (By the end of my stint with Glen Neath/David Rosenberg's Ring, I'd seen it – if you can call it that when a show is staged in the darkest, most Stygian, viscous-black dark possible in a theatre – four times. The first time, that dark made me unbalanced and nauseous; the fourth, giddy and gleeful.) But it's not just work: apparently this is now what I do for fun. My husband and children despair.

I wouldn't do it, I suppose, if returns diminished, but almost everything improves on further viewing. Admittedly, I think I concentrate harder if I make the decision to go back. But also, work grows. Clout's Various Lives of Infinite Nullity was blissful to see again: when they performed it in Edinburgh in 2013, it did a lot of smart and intriguing things creating purgatorial scenes in which green-skinned children scraped the blood off of corpses and gorged it spread on bread like jam, and people who had committed suicide gathered for a regular coffee morning, polite chit-chat gradually escalating into a competition over who had died most gruesomely, and for the most politically acute reason. But by the time I caught it again, at the Incoming festival in May 2014, what had been a sketch had transformed into a cohesive, starkly funny, profoundly disturbing show. The scenes were much the same, but sharper, fiercer, pushed as far as they could go; the children were genuinely intimidating, the suicides more strange and unsettling. The company were raising tricksome questions of what constitutes depravity, what constitutes sin, and who gets to decide the limits of acceptability; what freedoms might be found in death, and what impulse towards suicide crackles beneath the surface of everyday life. The point that western capitalism is killing people was made both more stridently and more subtly. But the company had also created new, more abstract material that had many in the audience (me included) jangling, it was so incomprehensible, extreme – and amusing. I've just read Matt Trueman's review of the Edinburgh show, which he enjoyed, but with reservations: “The problem is that their images remain just that: images. Too few translate into a visceral experience and spread the gnawing sensation they aim to convey into the stalls. In other words, Clout theatre describe a feeling without magicing it into existence. To do that, one needs still less literalism, to ramp up the inexplicable horror and detach from anything remotely rational.” That sense of the inexplicable and not remotely rational was exactly what I felt I was encountering in the Incoming performance. The company's work on the show still isn't done: they have another rehearsal week to play with it before a short run at BAC in the autumn. I'm really looking forward to seeing it again.

It's a constant nagging frustration that Jake and I haven't found time yet to document our residency at BAC's Scratch festival in June 2013, which is where I first encountered Clout: privately in rehearsal rooms and publicly in all-comers-welcome conversations in the cafe, we talked a lot during that month about the benefits and limitations of scratch and work-in-progress frameworks; the ways in which they benefit makers, but also entrench them within a limited and generalised offer; the ways in which makers successfully mould scratch to suit their own practice; and ideas makers have for how to make the system better, less of a showcase or a competition, less exploitative, less potentially damaging. For years, I didn't go to scratch showings, because I didn't understand my interaction with them: I still don't like feedback forms, and I was too shy to take up the invitation to talk to makers in the bar afterwards. I go now because I like to see work that is fragile and unformed: I'm constantly aware of my responsibility as an audience member (or audience practitioner, in the brilliant phrase coined by a lovely Canadian woman after she attended a panel where Andy Horwitz and I spoke about new forms of criticism, which I keep using in the hope it becomes common currency), the responsibility to be curious and attentive and responsive – but this feels weightier, or at least more material, in a scratch setting. In March 2013, at a panel event discussing scratch hosted by getinthebackofthevan, Mamoru Iriguchi spoke insightfully about what he gets out of such performances: he doesn't find feedback forms a helpful interaction either, but he does listen carefully to his audience while he's performing, notice where their attention lands and where it drifts, where they respond and how.

Where this becomes complicated is when a show travels from a scratch in a direction you, as loyal audience, weren't anticipating: when your ability to see what the show has become is impaired by the crowding of your sight with ghosts, of what the show used to or promised to be. This happened to me with Andy Field and Ira Brand's Put Your Sweet Hand in Mine, which I'm trying to write about in the Duska essay: that experience made me think a lot about trust in an “embedded”-or-whatever-we're-calling-it criticism relationship, what happens when “embedded” and dramaturgy blur, and where open-mindedness sits in critique. But this is material for the Duska essay, not here. I'm here because I've been wrestling with a single paragraph in it for two sodding days now, getting nowhere. Time to go back and see if it's finally written itself.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The queen of my world

This morning my head is full of this


and this


and this


Last night I fell asleep burning to write about Kathleen Hanna, but then my son woke me up at 1.44am and 6am needing help because he has a dicky tummy and was exploding with diarrhoea, and now I'm looking at the eight-project to-do list and wondering if I should bother.

This morning my best friend from teenage years, the girl who stood on stage with me in an upstairs room in Camden and read out poetry by Sylvia Plath while I clanged around with a guitar (we only did it once), sent me an email confessing that she feels ordinary, vanilla. “Having kids knocked the stuffing out of me,” she writes. The line rattles in my heart like a pebble.

Last night we saw The Punk Singer together. It reminded me of every time I've thought about starting a band and weaselled out. Of every time I've shut up and let someone else tell me what to do rather than standing my ground. Of wanting to start a magazine and looking for permission, which is slightly more than but also the same as looking for money, instead of just slapping one together with a stick of glue and a stapler. The constant nagging thought in my head: I'm not doing enough, I'm not loud enough, I'm not strong enough to remake the world.

But that's not what it's about.

There's a brilliant line in The Punk Singer, where Hanna talks about making the first Julie Ruin record, alone, in her bedroom, quietly rebuilding herself after the fallout of Bikini Kill. I won't paraphrase it; here's her making the same point in an interview in 2013:

I needed to get used to the sound of my own voice, and I think that’s what makes a girl’s bedroom special. You can make whatever you want when you’re alone in your room. The thing that’s interesting to me about the mention of it in the film and the way it was structured is that there are all these different girls' bedrooms and all these girls are making their stuff, and then they’re throwing it away, and how can we connect these bedrooms? We’ve seen today that we can connect these bedrooms through the Internet. That’s one of the positive things happening.

Around the time that interview was published, I threw away most of my teenage years and 20s: it was all just so much clutter. Not the fanzines, though. I kept those. 

(I talk a lot at the moment about wanting to connect the disparate conversations happening in theatre, about finding ways to share ideas, the responsibility I feel to join the dots. How writing might do that, a magazine might do that. The itch to make another fanzine is strong.)

Truth is, when my best friend and I went to see Bikini Kill, I guess when they toured in 1993, I was disappointed: they were a racket, and aggressive, and the whole thing was so confrontational I couldn't connect to it. The anger terrified me. And there was a lot about their construction of feminism I didn't understand. Why push boys to the back, instead of fighting for a space where girls and boys could stand-dance-sing side by side? I have a letter from another riot grrrl, older than me, explaining that one with gentle patience; I remember reading it and feeling like an idiot.

I'm berating myself again.

Watching The Punk Singer, I recognised the extent to which Kathleen Hanna raised the stick against which I have measured most of my life. Riot grrrl changed me. It gave me feminism, politics, a way of looking at the world. I knew I wanted to make stuff when it happened (writing, art, music, I didn't know, but something), and it told me to just get started. It told me to think hard about what I was saying. And something else it told me, which even now I keep needing to remind myself: if, by saying something truthful, something vulnerable, you can connect with one other person and make them feel less weird, less stupid, less alone, that is enough.

Like all feminists, I have moments of feeling unutterably depressed by apparently how little has changed for the positive in the 20 years since I encountered it. From the micro – girls are still pushed out of the front at gigs – to the macro, which is just about everything. When I started reading Susan Faludi's Backlash last year, a book I bought some 20 years ago, I was astonished: she's writing about the virulent media, cultural and political backlash against feminism in the 1980s, but all the newspaper articles she quotes, all the instances she gives of films and speeches and stupid attitudes, could have dated from any time since.

But the systems we struggle against are strong, and we can't give up, I can't give up. There's another brilliant line in The Punk Singer where Hanna talks about starting Le Tigre with Johanna Fateman, the two of them sharing all the shit they'd experienced, and deciding they wanted their new band to be celebratory, to focus on the stuff that made them happy. By the time I got home I had Diane di Prima shouting in my ears: ALL POWER TO JOY, WHICH WILL REMAKE THE WORLD. Anger is vital. But so is joy.

Having kids knocked the stuffing out of me, too. I still feel I have to ask for permission to work, not just from the family, from myself. Every day is a fight against spurious expectations, guilt, convention. If dismantling the patriarchy starts at home, I'm failing. I don't need anyone to tread me down: I do it to myself. As for the kids, every time one of them espouses conformist gender cliches, a bit of my soul breaks. But it's not just about me teaching (nagging) them to be different: it's about letting them find the culture that will give them the tools to make themselves different. If they find something even half as inspiring, challenging, electrifying as riot grrrl, I'll be happy.

This morning, over breakfast, I played them Le Tigre, and we talked about What's Yr Take on Cassavetes?, and my son said he's not a misobogutist because that would mean he hates me and his sister. So, you know, that's a start.



Sunday, 25 May 2014

forever reaching for the gold

The word 'free-lance', I used to think, had a romantic ring; but sadly discovered, when I tried to be one, that its practice has little freedom, and the lance is a sorry weapon to tilt at literary windmills.
[Colin MacInnes, City of Spades]

A common refrain you hear when it comes to poetry is, “That’s not work. Picking up the garbage is work!” The people who say this are usually also the people who think that poetry IS garbage, so I’m not sure what their problem is.

*

9/5/14

Feelings about the new freelance life: uncertain, laced with despondence.

Left shoulder: still broken.

Right wrist: repetitive strain injury.

Days until I turn 39: not enough.

I don't really know what I'm doing here.



*

Calvary is very uncertain about the “value” of art. It's fairly uncertain about the value of anything. Its characters grizzle and grouse, stew and steam, because the things that seemed most solid in Ireland – the sanctity of church and the wealth of state – have been exposed as sham, and now everything feels meaningless: marriage, money, faith, life itself. The chiselled cliffs of County Sligo loom in shot after shot, monolithic, enduring; the more I think about the film, the more they strike me as a colossal joke, mocking the inference that the country might just as well sink into the sea.

John Michael McDonagh has written/directed a furious piece of political and moral polemic, as red-raw and twisted as Francis Bacon's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. You can get the basics from Peter Bradshaw's and Xan Brooks' reviews, but here they are quickly: it centres on a Good Man, a priest, given a week to live by an embittered parishioner. The Good Man does his best to countervail the sins of his local community – which run the gamut from adultery to murder, via arson, domestic violence, drugs and rape – attempting not to condemn but to illuminate the redemption he intuits (perhaps over-generously) they deep-down crave; and, while facing up to the prospect of his own imminent death, aids the convalescence of his suicidal daughter, ministers the accidental death of a tourist, and acquires a pistol for an elderly friend. Over the course of the film, his hope is chipped and battered, so much so that by the end you could argue he's given up. All of which is rich, knotty and absorbing, but the thing that made my head really buzz, the thought I vomited over my husband as we walked from the cinema, is its undertow commentary on art, particularly art's ability to address what I'm going to call, more for the ring of it than pinsharp meaning, impossible things.

It starts like this. The parishioner, encased in the shadows of the confessional, announces: “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.” And the priest, played with charcoal humour by Brendan Gleeson, responds: “Certainly a startling opening line.” We've barely begun and already McDonagh has communicated two things: 1) he's bloody pleased with himself; 2) if you're going to make art about something as painful, incomprehensible and repellent as child abuse, to aestheticise would be insulting. You have to do something else.

As a salvo, there's nothing subtle about it – but it serves useful notice that we're to think about what McDonagh is doing, and what our role is as audience. Which is something I'm more habituated to in theatre, but McDonagh is pretty merciless (and unsubtle again) in his dig at the tedium of theatre. That comes later, when the priest and his daughter walk arm-in-arm on a grassy cliff-top and she wonders what they'd say to each other if delivering the Third Act Emotional Revelation in “one of those bloody boring plays at the Abbey”. It's a cliche jibe, unfair but probably accurate; what they go on to say is sufficiently sentimental to expose McDonagh's underlying motive, making his own art look better by scorning another's.

He's kinder to literature: played by M Emmet Walsh, the character of the American author has a whiskey sour burnish and ornery snap. He's seen a lot of life and now he's torching the page with it; I wanted to read his books the same way I want to gobble every scrap published by BS Johnson. But it's telling that McDonagh emphasises the author's isolation, immured in a stone hut amid the crags of a cliff, accessible only by boat. Where's the collaboration, the compromise, required of film-making? Where's the direct engagement with difficult, weird, infuriating humanity?

As for visual art, well now. Dylan Moran, with exquisite butter-wouldn't-melt foppish insouciance, plays a very rich man dismissed on his first appearance as a “fucking prick”. He's one of those people who became staggeringly wealthy in the days before financial meltdown and now lives like royalty in a hollow mansion while his country rots. Whether he gives the church a donation of £10,000 or £100,000 is irrelevant to him, that's how much money he's got. He asks the priest to visit him, saying he's got a proposition to make – but the proposition appears to be simply that nothing has value. Least of all art.

There's an extraordinary piquancy to the specific piece of art McDonagh uses in this scene. Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors luxuriates in materialism while acknowledging its immateriality in the face of death. It's not a painting I'd thought much about until reading John Berger's Ways of Seeing: he interprets it not just “at the level of what it shows within its frame, but at the level of what it refers to outside it”. For Berger, the painting is typical of “a class who were convinced that the world was there to furnish their residency in it”. He writes:

The gaze of the ambassadors is both aloof and wary. They expect no reciprocity. They wish the image of their presence to impress others with their vigilance and their distance. The presence of kings and emperors had once impressed in a similar way, but their images had been comparatively impersonal. What is new and disconcerting here is the individualized presence which needs to suggest distance. Individualism finally posits equality. Yet equality must be made inconceivable. [Berger's italics]

That equality was made inconceivable through the institutionalised racism of colonialism, through monotheism, and imperialism, through the dehumanising processes of capitalism – the mechanics of which are among the objects represented with such painstaking verisimilitude in the painting. In a scene of breathtaking complexity, and not a little swagger, McDonagh shows that painting vandalised: at the time I recoiled from it, but now a bit of me cheers.

McDonagh does this throughout Calvary: shows you humanity at its worst, the more strongly to encourage you to seek for its best. What that undertow commentary on art pulls you towards is a belief in art's ability to inspire empathy. This is the argument for subsidy it's so difficult to communicate to a government and an ideology that denies empathy at every turn. Dylan Moran's character is a Tory monster, a caricature of heartless, get-the-best-and-fuck-the-rest capitalism. If you encountered him in a newspaper, you'd just think he's a scumbag. And yet, by the end of the film, you sympathise with him, because McDonagh shifts the mask of money just enough to show what's underneath: a lonely, lost, damaged individual, desperate to feel.

That sounds like apologism, but I think it's more complicated than that. Empathy demands that we see past surfaces to the human beneath. In a key line in the film, the priest rumbles that there's too much talk about sins and not enough about virtues – in particular, the virtue of forgiveness. It's a fraught moment, because this is a film triggered by an awareness of, and desire to face up to, institutionalised child abuse. Where and how are forgiveness possible for people damaged, haunted, by rape? But Calvary explores different frames of empathy, different kinds of understanding and forgiveness, and the darkness that falls when they are missing. It knows that, in the face of atrocity, art might be futile – but equally, it might be our best hope.

*

Maybe it's the moment that I'm in – fragile, adrift, London a cold sea, so many sharks – but everything has been reading as an attempt to address impossible things. Or maybe that's all (good) theatre, right? The week that ended with Calvary started with Oh My Sweet Land at the Young Vic, which had an odd effect on me: the performer, Corinne Jaber, spends the show constructing kibbeh, one of many delicious but fiddly to construct fried things designed, as far as I can tell, to keep the women of the Mediterranean and Middle East in the kitchen and out of the way. For the character, they are grandmother, roots, the pull of homeland, and as I watched her I saw my grandmother teaching my mum to make flaounia, my mum showing me how to make bourekia, myself making and tweaking my aunt's recipe for baklava. Always through food that Cyprus claims me: scents and flavours of an ancestry I've resisted, a language I've never spoken, a culture I mostly abhor.

The character makes kibbeh to console and escape, to lose herself in the rhythms of pounding meat, squeezing bulgher, kneading and shaping, and this is the problem of the piece: it allows too much escape from its impossible-to-comprehend subject, the war in Syria. There are scenes that sear, of beatings, torture, the bleached bodies of children murdered with gas, casual destruction of lives and livelihoods, but the pain that drives the piece is a personal one, the heartache of a woman bereft when the love that flared between her and a refugee is extinguished. Focusing on romance diminishes the woman; Jaber's face, chiselled, proud, is too intelligent for that.

In between Calvary and Oh My Sweet Land was an odd double-bill at Soho Theatre, Captain Amazing and La Merda, neither of which gained from being thrust in such close proximity. Captain Amazing really is amazing: inventive, minutely detailed, small but swollen with heart and imagination. It jolts from cartoon fantasy to “real life”, from superheroes who complain about their laundry and argue with estate agents, to the drab existence of a man discovering a new capacity for emotion when he accidentally has a child, registering each handbreak-turn with little more than the barely perceptible swish of a cape and a twitch in a hangdog face. One of the many things I love about Alistair McDowall's script is his understanding of how hard it is to conjure up bedtime stories for children, how difficult to escape banality and create another world while struggling to explain the contradictions, unfairness and oddities of this one. And one of the many things I loved about Mark Weinman's unobtrusive performance is that I knew very quickly where the story was going, basically into my worst nightmare, but I wanted to travel there with him, no matter how painful it might be.

La Merda, thankfully, really isn't merda, but it is a hard, scratchy, angry piece, which scoured away the softness of Captain Amazing and demanded more of me than I was at that moment prepared to give. I couldn't tell if it was inspiring or intimidating: part of me wanted to punch the air, but another wanted to hide under the seats. Which is pretty much the split of emotion I felt reading Valerie Solanas' Scum Manifesto, with which Christian Ceresoli's text shares an intemperance of energy and expression, and at least the first bit of her rage to “overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex”. Silvia Gallerano, naked, voluptuous, although not in the 1950s pin-up way, her body undulating and drooping like softly moulded clay, mouth a red gash set rigid as she grows ever more hysterical, is riveting to watch, the self-hatred that cascades from her at once alarming in its extremity and recognisable in its banality. She made me want to be kinder to myself, especially to my thighs, and remember what a political act this can be.

*

16/5/14

Feelings about the new freelance life: curious, frightened, hopeful, confused.

Left shoulder: physio hurts.

Right wrist: needs a rest.

Days until I turn 39: even fewer.

Losing myself in the shaping of sentences and the scrabble for words.

Without knowing why.



*

I've been pulling at this question of how art addresses impossible things, although about as constructively as when I pull a soggy tissue to shreds, since seeing We Are Proud To Present at the Bush at the end of March. It really annoyed me; I always love co-hosting Dialogue Theatre Clubs but was particularly grateful to this one for helping me exorcise some of that nark. To give it the whole title, We Are Proud To Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudewestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, asks what theatre can tell us about colonial genocide, what actors are doing when they represent such a thing, whose story is being told, what audiences are getting from it. I can see how Siobhan Murphy in Metro found it excoriating, but can also see how Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph found it excruciating. I was somewhere in the middle: occasionally entertained, mostly involved, increasingly irritated, ultimately unconvinced.

I think I might have liked it more if it were actually what it purports to be, a show created by a group of actors working together, struggling to transform research into movement, emotion, metaphor: that way, multiple moments in which the characters reveal themselves as egotistical, greedy for the limelight, and all too ready to re-enact colonialist or racist attitudes, might feel less like impositions of caricature. As far as I can tell, however, the whole thing was scripted by Jackie Sibblies Drury, as her final thesis on her graduate playwriting programme. I found this in the Washington Post when scouring interviews for clues of the play's genesis:

Is “We Are Proud to Present . . .” on some level a writer defending her turf? After all, part of it is poking fun at theater collectives trying to create work as a group.
“I hadn’t thought about it that way,” Drury laughs. “I hope so. That makes me feel like I have a lot more chutzpah than I really do.”

It's perfectly possible that Drury is being misquoted or misrepresented, that she doesn't really want to come across as a playwright mocking ensemble making processes. And I realise I'm overprecious when it comes to such processes. I've spent three years in rehearsal rooms with Chris Goode & Company, watching people be generous, silly, brave, rigorous, angry, thoughtful, weird; watching them try and fail and bruise and soar and slump and question and try some more. It's made me a better person. And I've carried with me this which Chris wrote on his blog in 2011:

I'm very proud of the shows and pieces I make but I wish more and more that audiences could see inside the rehearsal room. That's where theatre is most like itself: a liquid thing, restless, full of spontaneities and unexpected shifts. The room I like being in is calm and careful but alive with attentiveness, with smart people trying to speak each other's languages, tune in to each other's invitations, respond to each other's desires. Negotiating in a spirit of curious enquiry and the delight that comes from being kind together.

Over the past several months, I've become increasingly committed to spending, if not rehearsal-room time, at least performance-space time with the Lyric Hammersmith Secret Theatre ensemble. I've seen them experiment with old text and odd text, freighted text and weightless text; I've seen them come a cropper one minute and reap gold the next. And in Show 5, I saw them create (with director Sean Holmes and dramaturg Joel Horwood) a chaotic, joyful, puzzling piece that invites its audiences to think very hard, interpret, seek to comprehend – but also have a laugh, a sing, and a bloody good time. That paragraph from Chris is basically a review of the show.

It's the first Secret Theatre show I've wanted to see multiple times, because it's the first that I'm sure would be radically different every night. It starts with the name of someone in the ensemble being picked from a hat: whoever gets called becomes the protagonist. The next 75 or so minutes are constructed around sequences of activities: the protagonist embarks on an absurdist assault course (the show's title is A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts), wrestles their fears, negotiates confrontational conversations, serenades a member of the audience, leads the dance. The night I saw it, Billy Seymour was the star turn; about a third of the way through he barked at someone in the audience: “What do you think the show is about?” And when the audience member responded with a gurgle of confusion (pretty much the response I'd have made at that point in the show), Billy bounded across the room yelling: “Love! I think it's about love!”

We Are Proud invokes a rehearsal room in its staging; Show 5 (at the Lyric, at least – I don't know what they're planning for Edinburgh) is staged in the ensemble's actual rehearsal room, with audience chairs lining three walls and seating for the performers along the fourth. There's something so electric about this sharing of space: it's such a clear indication that we're all creating the show together. By far my favourite bit of We Are Proud was walking through another, more real rehearsal space between the entrance and the auditorium, drinking in the dense collection of research materials pinned along the walls while the cast played ball beside me. The Secret Theatre ensemble's pre-work is, to a degree, visible in their room, too: pinned up on the walls are A4 sheets of text and more prominent setlists giving each action a title (Fears, Clinic, I Just), which, once I made that connection, felt a wonderfully compact way of giving a baffled audience a modicum of security, a key to unlock at least part of the show. Afterwards I walked round and read all the small-print, too, the questions they set themselves, their goals for the piece. On the night I saw it, it mostly was about love, but even more it was about chaos: the chaos of existing. Trying to be faithful to someone and failing; staying hopeful in the face of cynicism; fighting despite the risk of defeat, clinging on, falling apart, finding order and togetherness in dance. (I was really taken by the dancing: the Actionettes have an early dance to the same song, and the Show 5 routine is much better than ours.) Somewhere in the small-print, there's a list of other things the show might be about: capitalism, violence, conservatism. Everything that militates against love.

Show 5 is structured as a series of loops, each one opening/closing with the same series of impossible acts. These actions are always the same; what changes is the lead performer's relationship with the ensemble. They watch from the sidelines, silent, expectant. They coach, shout, taunt, groan with disappointment at every failure. And then they help. They make the impossible possible. At which point, my adoring heart just about burst.

We Are Proud moves in cycles, too – but there the cycles always hit the same brick wall, follow the same line of argument, move inexorably to a re-enactment of violence, as though nothing else were possible. With UKIP dominating British media, nothing else is. But I didn't trust the writing in We Are Proud, and because of that, I didn't trust the scenario, didn't trust its depiction of racism, didn't trust the production's motives in turning the video camera on the few people of colour in the audience, and didn't trust the degrading climax at all.

*

23/5/14

There's a question that keeps arising around pay.

How much is my time worth?

What is my value?

(Thank you Mary, Kevin, Lily, for help steering through this.)

Feelings about the new freelance life: I want to trust in fate or stars or the goodness of people. I want not to be anxious. I don't want to be envious of other people getting opportunities I've already had. I want to reach for the impossible, the absurd, otherness, change. I want to be ready for anything.

Left shoulder: hurts in a dull, tedious way. I'm scared. And I miss dancing.

Right wrist: gnarled gnawing ow ow ow.

Days until I turn 39: just don't even.

“The English theatre has a wonderful ability to encourage you to collude with your own disappearance.” Six years since Peter Gill said this to me. I've never forgotten it.

I don't want to value myself in the language of market economy. I want a new language for what I (could) do. And a new way of doing it: not alone, but together.



*

I think I was particularly disappointed by We Are Proud because when I saw it I was lost in the blizzard of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, one of the most dazzling, if discombobulating, books I've ever read. It calls itself a novel, and it is, in that it has a defined setting and storyline, a central character who falls in love with another character, whose affair is thwarted by a bunch of ancillary characters, in a fashion as much akin to detective fiction as romance – but it's interrupted by excerpts from 10 other novels (definitely not short stories), each with a defined setting, style, storyline and host of characters, each a struggle to begin, but slowly absorbing me, until it was cut off exasperatingly at a crucial twist in its plot, leaving me longing to know more. It was exhausting, it was exhilarating. And those feelings, that experience of reading, are central to the novel itself, because the main character and his inamorata are readers – you, now, reading, and your other. What it is to read, what constitutes a novel, what the relationship is between the author, text and reader, notions of deception and complicity, are the energy fuelling the story. All expressed with such irrepressible and profound love of words, their relationship to each other, the games they play, that no matter how frustrated I felt one, two, three nights, guaranteed I'd be in raptures the next. It made me long to see a piece of theatre that addresses its own medium and that reciprocal relationship with its audience with as much love and scintillating intelligence, not even realising that in Andy Smith's performances of Commonwealth and All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, I already had.

I saw them in a double bill at Camden People's Theatre, a few days before We Are Proud and a few months after seeing a film of Tim Crouch performing Commonwealth in last summer's Royal Court Surprise series. Tim brought mordancy and a glint of aggression to the show; I preferred Andy's gentler, less teasing presence. Commonwealth and All That Is Solid do something similar: think out loud about theatre, and capitalism, and the things we make together, as individuals, in small groups of people, and as a society, and the things we could make, if we stopped more, thought more, questioned more. They posit theatre as “an act of potential”. Theatre as a place of hope, of imagining and rehearsing change. Andy says all this so directly that a part of me quivers at how likely he is to attract huffed Daily Mail left-wing-propaganda-get-a-megaphone-and-stand-on-a-street-corner-why-don't-you responses, but a) I have no problem with direct-address anti-capitalism and b) the tingling sense of possibility Andy's words communicate lies as much in his muted performance of them. I've never before sat in a theatre and been so overwhelmed by the thought that I Could Do This. I could get a bunch of people together, give them something to eat, somewhere to sit, and at some point in the evening stand up and begin. It makes me realise how impossibly other so much theatre presents itself as: impressing audiences with its vigilance and distance, rendering equality inconceivable. In the spaces of Commonwealth and All That Is Solid, Andy could be replaced with anyone in the room, and the work would be as effective, possibly more so. And that's a profoundly radical gesture.

Something in the marketing for Werner Schwab's Dead at Last, No More Air made me think it might be a neat counterpoint to Andy's work: confrontational, vituperative, furious with theatre for inspiring not change but polite indifference. I wanted to love it, or at the very least get into a mud pit and wrestle with it. Instead, I dutifully watched the first quarter, trying to figure out why everyone stood declaiming, why no one seemed to understand what they were saying, or if they did why they interpreted everything so literally, why the whole thing seemed so embarrassed and clumsy; spent the next quarter persuading myself that almost nothing would have looked good after what I'd seen the night before, Ivo van Hove's trenchant and astonishingly well-acted A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, reminding myself that this is the fringe and they probably hadn't had enough rehearsal time, fantasy casting the Secret Theatre ensemble in the roles, and wishing Sean Holmes had been brave enough to tackle this instead of Woyzeck; and spent the final half pretending to make copious notes to write an erudite review but actually taking the opportunity to get some work done. I was obnoxious. But fuck it: from what Andrew Haydon says about Schwab, maybe so was he.

I've been trying to read the text, seeking out the punk-rock and the Einsturzende Neubauten and the young and drunk and rumbustious in it, but can't find it in the laboured superfluity of language on the page, either. It reminds me of trying to read Ubu Roi and thinking it was pants. That was after seeing a production at the Young Vic that had Ubu and his wife like grotesque dolls in a too-small toy palace, leering and cackling while a lugubrious foley puppeteer enacted grisly deaths using graters, whisks, rolling pins and vegetables: I remember it still, maybe 15 years later, as one of the most stomach-churning, thrilling pieces of theatre I've seen.

Dead at Last had a decent stage concept: most of the air in the space was pressed out by a pile of black inflatable mattresses (so much hot air), as imposing and comical as the balloons in Martin Creed's Half the air in a given space; at the end, with the death of the theatre director, they all deflate. But a single concept doesn't make theatre. Or militate against verbiage.

*

I shouldn't be doing this.

I shouldn't be doing this.

I shouldn't be doing this.

But...