Friday, 13 March 2015

The fever, and what remains

Flashback. A dreich night in January 2015, although it’s hard to tell if the drear is outside or in me. This is the ugliest hotel room I’ve ever been in. The furniture matches only in being tasteless; the art on the walls isn't worth a glance. There are people everywhere: sunk into camel-coloured leather sofas, upright at a glass dining table, perched against a lacquered cabinet, folded into the window frames. And still it doesn't feel crowded. A man walks amiably among us, tracksuit bottoms flapping around his bare ankles. His voice is the amber of single malt, lustrous with good breeding. At one point he stands right beside me and speaks as if I’m the only person here. I gaze into his flecked brown eyes and feel my insides burn. This isn’t what he said to me:

I went to a play with a group of friends—a legendary actress in a great role. We stared at the stage. Moment after moment the character's downfall crept closer. Her childhood home would at last be sold, her beloved cherry trees chopped down. … She would be forced to live in an apartment in Paris, not on the estate she'd formerly owned. Her former serf would buy the estate. It was her old brother's sympathetic grief that finally coaxed tears from the large man in the heavy coat who sat beside me. But the problem was that somehow, suddenly, I was not myself. I was disconcerted. Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping?”

Flashback. November 2014. I’ve always hated The Cherry Orchard. That bloody awful production in Richmond or Wimbledon, all prim bustling dresses, beige suits and starched accents. This is something else. The stage is wide and gloomy, its walls the grey stain of condensation mould. Unwantedness seeps from the characters, too. When the Katie Mitchell/Simon Stephens take on The Cherry Orchard makes me weep, it isn't because the neglectful rich are losing their crumbling mansion and desiccated land, but because love is so cruelly absent: the word is spoken but the feeling isn't there. In this world, a mother mourns her dead son by abandoning her living, breathing daughters; men spurn affection that women struggle to give; caring for nature isn't nearly as important as the principle of owning it. In this world, generosity looks like thoughtless idiocy.

Together with brilliant Lily Einhorn, I hosted a Theatre Club on The Cherry Orchard for the Young Vic's Two Boroughs participation audience, most of whom found the coldness of the production really difficult: it disengaged them from the characters, whom they found self-centred and/or stupid, and stopped them sympathising. I understood what they meant: the characters weren't likeable. Even so, I'd had an electric evening with them. Especially listening to Peter: mocked as an eternal student, he gives two impassioned speeches, one about the responsibility of human beings to make change, the other about slavery, acute with truth and fearlessness, that made me want to leap out of my seat and punch the air:

Your grandfather. And your great-grandfather. And generations and generations of your family before them. They actually thought that they owned real living human beings. They bought and sold them like cattle. And here, standing here, looking out at the cherry trees that were built on all that ownership, it's like I can hear the voices of all those humans, all those dead souls, that were owned and purchased and sold by your family. It's degraded all of you. You're not just in debt to the people you owe money to. You're in debt to all the dead that you've ever owned. If we're going to change our world then we need to atone for the things that have happened in our past. We need to suffer for it.”

That's how I want us to talk about the problem of capitalism and why we're really not living in a “post-racial” world. I think about how Selina Thompson described intersectional thinking to me as “a commitment to never being comfortable or relaxed, and always being aware of the discomfort of your own privilege”: that's how I understand that word “suffer”.

The theatre club group found the politics of the production difficult too, and we spent a long time prodding, digging, picking at loose threads, to reach an articulation of these misgivings. It was clear that the way the Ranevskaya household conducted themselves wasn't just unsustainable but inhumane. Why, exactly, were we supposed to be weeping? But the problem ran deeper than that. I've always taken the conventional line on The Cherry Orchard: first performed in 1904, it anticipated change that in hindsight is known to be the revolutions of 1905 and, more seismically, 1917. Stephens and Mitchell, we decided, really wanted to believe in social revolution, gave Peter firecracker speeches about human potential, but were undermined by the charisma and tenacity of the businessman, Alexander, a David Cameron lookalike who echoes Peter at his moment of greatest triumph, the buying of the orchard from right under the family's noses:

If my father and my grandfather and my great-grandfather could drag themselves out of their graves by their claws and see me here now. And see their little Alexander, who could barely even read and who they used to beat up and who used to run round here in the winter with no shoes on his feet, this same Alexander, has bought an estate, and not just any estate, the finest estate in the world! The estate where they were farmhands! They weren't even allowed in the kitchen.”

By the end of the Theatre Club discussion, the group felt relieved and resolved: Mitchell and Stephens wanted to ignite socialist fervour, but instead gave the devil, Alexander, all the best tunes, which made their version politically muddled and counter-productive. Done. But something about this jarred with me, nagged at me for weeks, until the fierce, piercing intelligence of the production finally hit me. The Cherry Orchard is a play anticipating social reorganisation: Chekhov didn't know what that would be, but conventional hindsight reads that as the advent of communism. But Mitchell and Stephens take the longer view, the full span of a century view, and read it as the advent of capitalism. I might be making this up, but I remember there being a moment in the production when the characters look through the window at the cherry orchard, and the window is at the edge of the stage: the auditorium is the orchard, and we, the audience, are the cherry trees, bought and sold, at the mercy of aristocratic whims and capitalist exploitation.

Alexander is the oppressed man who embraces corruption the moment opportunity arises: rather than seek to dismantle the power structures that exploited his family, he reinforces them. When he echoes Peter's language, it's in the way that neo-liberalism contains the word, the promise, of liberalism, the way capitalism tries to sell you self-determination and contentment. The violence of this production isn't in Alexander's inexorable destruction of the cherry orchard – the fucking trees were half-dead anyway – but his ability early in the play to present his corporate machinations as solicitude, an expression of love. He is every food manufacturer that has chopped down rainforests to replace them with beef farms because people have an insatiable desire for burgers and every energy company executive rubbing their hands at the prospect of mining the Arctic for oil because people need fossil fuels to achieve fulfilment.

Alexander is a force for one kind of change; in enacting it, he dismisses all others, the way capitalism makes imagining the apocalypse easier than imagining social reorganisation. “I know exactly the potential of the people around here,” he tells Peter. “They have the potential to lie. They have the potential to deceive. They have the potential to inveigle. They'll change nothing.” This is where we find ourselves, this production says. In a time when the wealthy and powerful treat “common” people with scorn. When even dedicated left-wingers encourage people to vote for strategy rather than what they believe in. What are we going to do about it? Matt Trueman, brilliantly, argues that Mitchell and Stephens present the minor character Charlotta as a beacon: uninhibited, impulsive, queer and quixotic, she articulates the necessity of constant regeneration. I think he's right. But I also think she's living solitary in the future and doesn't especially care who joins her there. There are many reasons to be wary of Peter: he's self-important, overly earnest, heartless even (his treatment of Anna, the poor woman who loves him, is appalling). No wonder Matt rejects him. But he's the only person on stage articulating the problem. That counts for a lot.

Or does it? What point is there in all those words? All these words? When and how do words become action? What action can they become? Harry Giles, who eschews party politics and instead campaigns at a grassroots level, is the source of all inspiration to me, but sometimes I struggle even to read his tweets, let alone follow his path. I want change and I want to enact change, but the energy of that wanting goes into finding the words, not pushing it through.

And then I'm sitting in a hotel room with a man with absorbing brown eyes, who's articulating the present problem with lacerating bluntness. When Wallace Shawn wrote The Fever, Thatcher was still prime minister and Reagan was handing over the presidency to Bush: these were the architects of our world, and the inequality his text describes has become more stark, more excruciating, more putrescent in their wake. Flashback: I'm sitting on the stage of the Olivier theatre, watching James Graham's This House, a play about the five years (1974-79) during which Labour dwindled and Thatcher rose to power. I'm squirming with discomfort, because I hate basically everyone and everything on stage, and then one politician says to another something along the lines of: under the Tories, life would be shit for some people; under Labour, life is shit for everybody. I still remember the audience's laughter at that “joke” as one of the ugliest sounds I've ever heard.

Watching The Fever was good for me, the way I'd like counselling to be good for me. It lifted all the anxiety, the self-reproach, the guilt, the discomfort, the desire, the confusion I feel being a middle-class white person working in the arts, with no financial worries apart from the principle of wanting to be paid, all the words that whirr in my brain on sunny days and sleepless nights, took all of that and put it in the mouth of someone else, so I could nod along and say: yes, that, that's how I feel, that's the rhythm of it, the sickly fevered pulse of it, the anger and sorrow and useless pity of it. If I had a problem with Robert Icke's production, it's that the Mayfair hotel room he picked was so large, so ostentatious, so beyond the means of the people in his audience, conceivably even the offensive man in a suit who sat opposite me with a smirk on his face that clearly said, “This isn't about me.” (This is the only point on which I even slightly disagree with Andrew Haydon's shrewd and searing review.) Shawn makes clear that if you can afford to buy a ticket to see The Fever, regardless of background or career or anything at all, you're implicated; the hotel room, by contrast, let the audience off the hook, let people listen to the text as a rant about the super-rich instead of a livid indictment of the entire system:

Do you remember that day in school when you were playing with those three other children, and the teacher appeared in the room with four little cakes and gave all of the cakes, all four of the cakes, to that little boy called Arthur, and none to you or your two other friends? Well, at first all four of you were simply stunned. For that first moment, all four of you knew what had happened was unjust, insane. But then your friend Ella tried to make a little joke, and Arthur got furious and he hit Ella, and then he went into a corner and he ate all the cakes. It was an example of someone getting away with something.

And your life is another example. It's the life of someone who's gotten away with something.”

I feel that all the time. Writing about theatre. Living in a big house. Buying hot chocolate in a cafe for £2.90. That's partly to do with the constant nagging sensation that unlike my husband, who leaves the house at 8am and doesn't return until 6.58pm, I'm not doing a proper job, because art isn't truly valued in these structures and nor is domestic work, but it's something else, too, a getting away with something indefinable but immoral.

Flashback. Before buying the big house with my husband I lived in the sunniest of flats on the same road where Vincent Van Gogh was a lodger in 1873. At night I still return to that flat, wander through its odd-sized rooms with jewel-coloured walls, wishing I'd never left. It fit me, nourished me, gave me new ways to grow. Even so, now and then I'd walk past the crumbling Van Gogh house, with its peeling paint and overgrown weeds and apologetic windows, and wonder. What the hallway might murmur if I walked through the weather-warped door. What ghosts hid within the walls. What lightness of belonging it might let me feel.

Francesca Millican-Slater knows that feeling. Flashback: it's summer 2014 and she's giving the audience at Camden People's Theatre a slideshow tour of her flat in Birmingham. It is the ugliest flat I've ever seen. The former offices of a TV rental and repair business, it has teak wood panelling in the sitting room, walls an eye-popping tropical yellow, a ramp down to the bedroom, and a door that bolts only on the outside. She sleeps with a hammer beside her and listens to the flat creak and sigh. The sounds are whispers, laughter, conversation. This flat becomes her best friend.

Forensics of a Flat (and Other Stories) is a show about regeneration, the necessity of change, what's lost with it, what gained. Fran – I've only seen two shows by her, but feel like I know her – moved to Birmingham because, late in 2011, she realised she was tired of London: she'd fallen out of love with with the push of the crowds, the relentless tempo of living, even with crossing the river at night. London was in the midst of that pre-Olympics regeneration programme and she knew in a way that I somehow didn't that things were only going to get worse.

The Birmingham flat is so singular that Fran sets out to explore its history. She discovers that the shop sat in a terrace built at a time of considered social regeneration, on a patch of land shaped like a slab of meat. The idea was to create a community, with all the shops it needed close at hand, and its own theatre; in a story typical across the UK this later became a cinema, then a bingo hall, and was finally boarded up. Fran traces the different owners of the shop, remarkably few of them, grocers mostly, until she reaches her landlord, a scintillating character, all wide-boy swagger and petty-criminal charm. He has gathered his own community, of young men just like him, who gather for regular karaoke sessions in the rooms downstairs but otherwise leave Fran in peace.

She's good at this, Fran, finding a story and digging deep to its buried roots, making you care about something or someone forgotten and seemingly inconsequential. The other show I've seen by her, Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs, took the form of a quest: rummaging through a box of old postcards she encountered one addressed to Miss Gibbs in a flat in London, that said only, “Be careful.” Who, what, why, why, why? She showed it to a handwriting-reader, who guessed the writer was a man, looked up Miss Gibbs in the census and other official records, visited the address, and slowly discovered that the postcard was intended for a factory worker who in her life would have been utterly insignificant. There was something so poignant about the resurrection of this forgotten woman, the granting her of a status she could never have had in life. Remembering her, I wonder whether it's the lure of celebrity, artistic genius, the blue plaque imprinted with the name of Van Gogh, that attracted me to 87 Hackford Road, and nothing intrinsic to the house itself. How shallow that makes me feel.

I missed some of the detail of Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs in Forensics of a Flat. I wanted to know more about the other people who had lived there, and especially more about the local House of Wanton Women, a correctional institution for those uninhibited, impulsive, queer and quixotic creatures who needed to be restrained from indulging in sex, wine and cheese. But this wasn't a show about people so much as power. Who shapes a community? Who decides how people will live? Who controls resources? Who dictates fashions in entertainment, shopping, interior decor? When Fran moves into her flat, it's in a parlous state, but it has character, and she loves it. What value that love? To her landlord, nothing. He gives the flat a makeover in the end: rips out the panelling, sorts the windows, upgrades the electrics and paints the walls innocuous white. When she shows us estate agent images of the renovated flat, all its singularity is gone. In its place are uniformity and a substantial rent hike.

For as long as I lived on Hackford Road, I hoped that the Van Gogh house would go up for sale, not because I'd be able to buy it, just so I could step inside. When I do at last, in May 2014, it's not with an estate agent, but Artangel, who commissioned video artist Saskia Olde Wolbers to create Yes, These Eyes Are the Windows across its interior. I wish they'd asked Fran instead; I think she would have unearthed the stories I wanted to hear: less of the administrative to-and-fro of how the house was saved from demolition in the 1970s by a postman-turned-sleuth, more incidental details from the lives of the people who lived there after Van Gogh moved on. The people who installed the 1950s furniture that lingers in the bedroom, the people who put up the patterned wallpaper now torn and grey, the people who had to move out because they couldn't afford to fix the roof, so weak now that scaffolding poles grow like tree trunks from floor to floor, holding it up. The women who worked in the galley kitchen jutting into the garden, the children who learned here when the house was a makeshift school.

Wolbers knows she needs to convey the whispering of the walls. Sounds spill from cracks and crevices, climb the stairs, crawl around doors. Murmurs of romance, the girlish giggles of the landlady's daughter and the heavy longing of Van Gogh's unrequited love; the triumph of the postman's detective work; the heavy thump of officialism in letters from the council; the intrusion of journalists and idle chatter of local residents. I hear the hiss and roar of dust disturbed, the faint gurgle of tributary rivers, electric static and hum. I wanted to love what Wolbers had done. But something was missing. It was, I think, the voice of the house. The soundtrack clattered and buzzed within it without ever seeming to fit. It was a story imposed on the building, rather the story it wanted to tell.

Or maybe I was distracted by another whisper: the whisper of my own long-cherished wanting. Walking around the rooms of the Van Gogh house, I painted the walls in jewel-like colours, restored the splintered beams of the exposed attic, ripped up the linoleum, gave the kitchen more space. Why do people weep for houses? Because houses aren't your belongings: you belong to them. I've lived in 11 places over the years (not counting university rooms); two, maybe three, felt properly like home.

I arrived too early for Yes, These Eyes Are the Windows, so spent a bit of time wandering up Hackford Road, thinking about regeneration – the area has been considerably landscaped, it's full of benches and arty quotations embedded in the brickwork and pretty-pretty flowerbeds now – and the inexorable rise of London property prices. The people I bought my two-bed flat from had owned it for about three years and paid £95,000 for it. I bought it in 2000 for £205,000 and sold it in 2005 for £245,000. May 2014, a two-bed flat on Hackford Road, without a garden, was on the market for £450,000. Soon after this, I saw a house for sale around the corner from me, for £1,695,000. That's fully £1m more than a house on the same street cost nine years ago.

This is how diseased the London property market is, how poisoned by money. The house next door to mine is basically derelict. The window frames are rotten, the drains are cracked and pulling from the wall, buddleia grows from the roof. The inside is raw with disrepair. Even in that parlous state, it was sold last October for £850,000, allegedly to a married man who hoped, once it was renovated, to start a family there. Turns out his motivations for buying it were far more mercenary: weeks later, the house was back on the market, this time for £1m. Still in that parlous state. He was just a speculator, looking to make what for him is some spare change.

When I tell friends that story, their eyes pop: if that's worth a million, they cry, what must your house be worth? I turn the question back at them: what do you mean by worth? How is that defined? Who by? What value system do they operate by? What ethics are they using to shape this worth? What ethics are shaped by this worth? Is my house an investment, a commodity, or the place where I live? To what extent am I being objectified by a value system I can't control?

Flashback. I pretty much managed to avoid everything to do with Dapper Laughs, but now I'm watching Charlie Brooker's 2014 Screen Wipe and there's his stupid misogynist face and surprise, surprise, it turns out he works as an estate agent on my local high street, and all my worst fears are confirmed.

Flashback. To a time before I could understand why people might want to leave London.

Before that wet chilly night in late 2013 when I looked at the London skyline and felt crushed by the realisation that it belonged to an international city.

When I could stand in the middle of Hungerford bridge, gazing at clouds skimming the dome of St Paul's, and not want to be sick.

This city's grit is embedded in my skin. I used to find that romantic.

The life I live is irredeemably corrupt. It has no justification. I keep thinking that there's this justification that I've written down somewhere, on some little piece of paper, but that it's sitting in the drawer of some desk in some room in some place I used to live. But in fact I'll never find that little piece of paper, because there isn't one, it doesn't exist.

There's no piece of paper that justifies what the beggar has and what I have. Standing naked beside the beggar – there's no difference between her and me except a difference in luck. I don't actually deserve to have a thousand times more than the beggar has. I don't deserve to have two crusts of bread more.”


Friday, 27 February 2015

It may be just us who feel this way

There is no way this is going to make any kind of coherent sense, let's all just accept that now. Tonight I walked home from the tube with music loud in headphones for the first time in probably 14 years (safety first, children) because today Father John Misty has been a life support machine for me and I couldn't totally be sure the blood would keep going round my body without him in my ears. (“She said music is like literally the air that I breathe, the malaprops make me want to fucking scream.”) I wasn't supposed to go to his gig at Village Underground tonight: I tried to buy tickets soon after it was announced but they'd sold out days beforehand; I tried to pull strings but the saintly patient PR at FJM's label Bella Union was like, you must be kidding, the beardy male music journos are salivating all over him; I tried pitching a review to the Guardian but the email wasn't answered. I'm so fucking glad I didn't get that commission. Because for a few days now I've been noticing that not writing on here was feeling like I'd amputated a part of myself and the wound, far from healing, has been seeping and sore. Tonight walking home from the tube with Father John Misty loud through the headphones I looked up at the sky and through London's light pollution visioned the constellations and all the stars aligned. This is what I fucking live for.

I have a lot of trouble being alive. (“I've brought my mother's depression, you've got your father's scorn and a wayward aunt's schizophrenia.”) This week I've been doing a lot of lying awake looking at the darkness (“and there's a black dog on the bed”); this morning the guy who sweeps the local streets smiled at me when I was walking home from school and that small act of kindness made me cry. I came home and vomited over twitter how distraught I was that I didn't have a ticket for the Father John Misty gig and started quoting choice lines. “Oh and no one really knows you and life is brief, so I've heard but what's that got to do with this black hole [in] me?” “How many people rise and say my brain is so awfully glad to be here for yet another mindless day?” I managed to hold myself together through most of the gig, by which I mean I spent almost all of it with one arm pressed hard against my stomach or clutching my left ribs, locking my heart in its proper place, but the song that second line comes from, Bored in the USA, broke me right open. It's the one that on record Tillman punctuates with brutal spasms of canned laughter; live, he keeps it simpler, and delivers the sardonic commentary in his gestures instead: a mocking shrug for “they gave me a useless education”, a flourish of the hand for “sub-prime loan”. (I didn't take notes, by the way. This is impressionism, not journalism.) It's a song that expresses acutely how the world we live in is a fucking joke. I was walking across the Thames yesterday and realised I've come to hate the London skyline. My city has been taken over, diseased by money, and now I have no true home.

Is this the part where I get all I ever wanted?
Who said that?
Can I get my money back?

A look of what-the-fuck bewilderment for: “When I was young, I dreamt of a passionate obligation to a room-mate.” (Actually, apart from I keep staying up too late, the marriage is fine right now. Thanks for asking.)

The only thing that makes living in a city like London bearable are the moments of connection. Just before going to the FJM gig, I co-hosted a Dialogue Theatre Club on Kim Noble's You're Not Alone, where this question of connection was vital. (OK, more truthfully, I ran out on the Theatre Club to go to the gig, which is rude, but sometimes even passion-work has got to take a back seat. And anyway, as usual, 75% of the people who booked didn't bother to show. Do those people realise how fucking dispiriting it is to be stood up like that?) I felt bruised by Kim's show; someone else at the Theatre Club said she found it difficult but ultimately cleansing to watch; what both of us responded to was the search for connection, the exterior aggression of that, the gentleness beneath. I got all muddled up trying to say something about how Kim normalises extreme behaviour, like drilling a hole through a neighbour's wall; what I meant, but didn't manage to articulate, is that through this extreme behaviour he conveys tender messages about what human beings need from each other. The graph he plots of his neighbours' sex life after drilling the hole shows that whenever the sex plummets, the arguments increase. There's a lesson in that for all of us.

Back to FJM.

Having vomited over twitter, something amazing happened. Someone who doesn't have an account, but had some tickets they needed to sell on, saw what I wrote, found my Dialogue email address and contacted me offering them. And when it turned out that I would need to meet them at the same time as doing the Theatre Club to be able to get in, gave me their mobile number so I could call them on arrival and they would leave the gig to come out and get me. A total stranger, going out of their way to be nice to me. Meanwhile, saintly patient PR at Bella Union – the label I once impatiently described as home to 50% geniuses, 50% vacuous soundalikes-by-numbers – contacted everyone with a plus one to find out if they really needed it, and got me on the guest list. And then, someone I once had a terrible crush on, who rested his chin on my head at a Smog/Palace gig in Camden, and took me to the best pinball-machine bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and laughed at me for using fuck-off as a quantifying adjective, and pretended to need an eye-patch after not seeing me for several months (turns out I still haven't forgiven him for that one), he picked this day to find me on twitter as well. Connections, people reaching out to each other, to me. Small acts of kindness. And then it's 9.15pm and I've missed the first three songs (including Honeybear! ach) and I'm worming my way closer and closer to the front where Father John Misty is scissor-kicking and hurling himself to his knees and rolling his hips this side, that side, like he's dancing a cha-cha with his own songs, and his voice is pouring through me like golden honey, spiced rum, and it's like I have wings, because a handful of people have been good to me. I'm not supposed to be here, on the right side of paradise. But I am.

And it turns out that Father John Misty is a total fucking rock star sex god. Did you imagine that listening to his records? He sings about being a ladies' man, or pulling more women than two men or a train can haul, but it's one thing talking a talk: live, he walks the walk. Struts it, peacock proud. He's skinny, dressed in black, with a gleaming swoop of dramatic hair (actually, that was vaguely disturbing, because he has the exact same hair as Rupert Goold, who to be fair totally presents himself as the rock star of theatre), shirt unbuttoned just so, and the hips, the hips, I keep talking about the hips, they are the hips of a man who KNOWS WHAT TO DO WITH YOU. I have a friend who pretty much has to start fanning herself every time Nick Cave is mentioned. Father John Misty has learned a lot of his moves from Nick Cave; he radiates charisma, it jitters through his limbs. At one point he makes a rubbish joke along the lines of doing his best to make everyone's pants wet. People: it's working.

That joke is rubbish written down, but basic lesson of comedy: it's all in the delivery. This is the other surprise. Remember the first time you saw John Grant play live and discovered that not only does he have the voice of god, he's also this sharp, spry wit, conversational and funny, a deprecating storyteller with exquisite timing? Tillman has that chattiness, too. He makes another bad joke, about mothers, and decides he's found the limits of British black humour; he teases himself for a move gone wrong (swinging the microphone, it flies off to the floor); does the whole encores-are-ridiculous schtick, but with such appreciation of its absurdity we laugh even more. Like Grant, he takes the worst of himself,

Every woman that I've slept with
Every friendship I've neglected
Didn't call when grandma died
I spend my money getting drunk and high
I've done things unprotected
Proceeded to drive home wasted
Bought things to win over siblings
I've said awful things, such awful things

And now
Now it's out

and in song takes every step from self-pity to lacerating fury to self-mockery to quiet acceptance – then, in between the songs, returns emotions to an even keel by the simple expedient of laughing genially at himself. It's a skill I don't have and I admire it immensely.

The thing he does that Grant doesn't do is sing with his whole body – I'm going to try not to talk about the hips again – underscoring individual words with gestures. A tap to the head any time wit or brains are mentioned. A hand skimming a thigh. The Ideal Husband has him throwing himself around the stage, sinking to his knees as he screams of being tired of running, tipping back to the ground as he begs to put a bun in the oven. Holy Shit sends him over the barrier to bury himself in the crowd, singing:

Oh, and love is just an institution based on human frailty
What's your paradise gotta do with Adam and Eve?
Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity
What I fail to see is what that's gotta do with you and me

You and me. That's what this gig is about: him and us, you and me, human beings having face time, making love, finding companionship, saying the words that are impossible, reaching out at exactly the moment when it's needed. Defying every economic structure that's built to destroy us and keep us apart and creating moments of communion instead. He teases one person for watching him through the camera lens of their mobile phone but takes the phone off of someone else to sing directly into it, a private performance. We gather at his feet to sing at the top of our voices as one; I look around me and all I see is joy on faces, amazement, love. It's the mirror of what I feel shining back at me.

Somewhere in the middle I remember there has to be an end and it's like the depression that hits me every midsummer's day, knowing that this is the beginning of summer's decline. I think I might have to walk home: it's the only way I can deny that the gig is finished. But when it really finishes, I know what I have to do. It starts on twitter: “he's reduced me to archetypal screaming beatles fan”. And then, for the first time in a long time, I race home and let myself write something absolutely only for me. Because I want to hold on to this night for ever. Because I have trouble being alive and nights like this remind me why I need to stick with it. Because I got a ticket for free and that was a gift and I want to give something back. Because I'm really fucking angry right now with everything to do with theatre criticism and it feels really good to turn my back on it and write about music instead. Because I can't hold all of this love inside my body, I'm just not big enough. Some of it has to spill out into the world.

The last thing I wrote on twitter about Father John Misty was a mathematical formula:

john grant voice + nick cave moves = best sex ever

It's 2.12am and in just under seven hours I'm going to arrive back at this desk and buy as many tickets as I possibly can for the next FJM gig in London. When the midsummer day's depression hits, my consolation will be knowing that autumn will bring him and this night back to me.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Coney and documentation as storytelling: Scratch 2!

A quick introduction: This follows on from last month's initial scratch, which gives details about the project. In this second iteration, which is based on a work-in-progress performance of Early Days (of a Better Nation) that took place at King's College on October 19, I play around more with the kinds of written matter that's in Dacia's Mass Observation Archive (letters as well as diaries, basically), begin to respond to the materials given to participants at the beginning of the show, begin to register that the show happens in two time-frames, and begin to introduce real audience-members, people whom I observed during the performance and/or spoke to during the interval. 

As last time, I'm fascinated by the slippages between fact and fiction, and by the difference between creating character voices and attempting to capture a voice heard briefly during the show. There's another challenge, too: how not to give away too much for those who are going to see the show - some of this material was rewritten following feedback from Coney's producer, who felt I wasn't getting that quite right. Once again, anything rooted in my own response to Early Days is credited to a character whose name is an abbreviation of my own (luckily my full name has 22 letters to play with), and I'd be really interested in any feedback or responses.

Mass Observation Record
Writer: Maddy Costa
Observer Number: 114
Date: 19 October, 2044
Place: The Plains, Dacia

A great deal of optimistic prose will be written about this day: that it is the first in many people's living memory characterised by dialogue, not violence; by cooperation, not antagonism. Many people I spoke with – particularly from the Islands – feel it began with Dacia divided, and ended with the unity of a common vision. Taking an objective view, however, the day has been more complex than that idealised vision conveys.

I was impressed from the very beginning of the day by the spirit of curiosity that reigned over proceedings. People from each region of the country had been summoned to attend a national meeting in the City to discuss the pressing issue of the World Council, and its offer of military aid, and everyone I encountered was more interested to know not only what others thought, but more particularly what people from regions other than their own thought. We met in the ornate heart of Dacia's old Chapel – spared so far in all the violence, still sombre and stately, miraculous in its stillness and beauty – and although we entered as separate groups, quickly these merged to speak across boundary lines. The word trust hung in the air, tantalising all: could we begin to mend the broken trust between the people? To reject the World Council would require us to do so immediately. It would require us to rebuild leadership immediately.

And yet, I cannot help registering surprise at the decision that was taken: not only to reject the World Council, but to move forward as a country without a traditional leadership structure. Galvanised by Angela Clerkin, the charismatic former politician from the Islands, we are attempting a new political system, working cooperatively to the country's mutual benefit.

Undeniably, this is a remarkable turn of events: the hope it demonstrates was inconceivable even weeks ago. But I can already see flaws. Many Dacians felt uncomfortable with the speed with which the Islanders in particular pushed the general vote towards this national cooperative. Any attempt at dissent, or even mild questioning, was quickly shouted down by cheerful anarchists, desirous of absolute change. Other Observers, I know, will have been swept up in the mood of optimism, and will report quite differently. But from my standpoint, there is much to inspire ambivalence, perhaps even anxiety, in the happenings of the day.

Available within the Mass Observation Archive
Date: 19 October, 2044

Elena Zabeth, student, the Plains
I realised today how much I've changed. It's probably been happening for a long time. Storn taking control, and showing so little respect for anyone who didn't fit his impossibly narrow view of what a human should be and do, made me aware of my responsibility, as a citizen, towards the people with whom I live and form a country. I couldn't use words like that before, or think in that way. I learned that you can't just sit back and grumble when things happen in the state that you don't like: you have to fight against them, because otherwise, how does anything change? Not that I was brave enough to fight. I wrote, and tried to agitate through that writing. But today, at the general meeting, I found my voice. And not just with people I know: with strangers, and people from the Islands. I find Islanders so difficult: people in the Plains haven't exactly been on the front line during the way, but they've lived essentially in safety. So when they began talking about the offer from the World Council, which of course they oppose, I knew I had to step in. I asked them to see this from the perspective of City people. Their homes are being destroyed, people they know are being murdered. I made clear that I mostly agree with them – the terms being offered by the World Council, not least the lack of autonomy, are untenable – and I was playing devil's advocate (as I write this, I feel amazed – I've never taken that position, ever!). But there are people in this country who don't know who to trust: why should they trust us now? To my amazement, trust became the key word of the debate: the more we merged as a single group, getting closer to voting time, the more I heard others use it, saying things like: this is a time for trust. It was the most astonishing feeling, knowing I could make that kind of contribution. And I've realised, I feel hungry for that – not for power, but for the spoken dialogue that makes change. I'm excited for the future, and that's a big change, too.

Available within the Mass Observation Archive
Date: 19 October, 2045

Christine [surname unknown], lawyer, the Plains
I despair at the naivety of my countrypeople. I do. A year ago we voted, by an overwhelming majority, to reject the advances of the World Council, despite the risk this represented. As I said in that meeting, maintaining law and order is vital if we are to make progress; I could tell from the response of some of the younger Dacians that they thought me essentially conservative and reactionary, but they blinker themselves from the complexity of the situation. Our country has assets and infrastructure that need protecting; the steep rise of refugees in the Plains has put a considerable strain on resources; after a year of ruling ourselves cooperatively, the City is more damaged and fragile than ever. Without some form of security and policing, we are vulnerable: at risk of attack from fellow Dacians, and our neighbours.

Today, at the national meeting to distribute resources, I hoped other representatives from the country's three regions would at least recognise this. I tried to argue the case for a proper police force in the City, to bring stability, and in the Plains, to protect the heavy metal mines. The wealth, the very future of our nation is based in those mines: we have a duty to ensure their safe-keeping, for future generations. But as usual, self-interest in the guise of idealism prevailed. We found the money for vaccinations, for hospitals, for food, but not law and order. I come from a long line of anarchists and know that this kind of approach inevitably ends in danger, even failure. I feel a great disappointment in the country today, and an anxiety for the days ahead. The young believe the civil war is over, but I fear it has barely begun.

Available within the Mass Observation Archive

Letter to Mrs Madel, the Plains, dated October 2045

Hi Mum! Thanks for your postcard. I managed to pick up some medicine for Grandad. And I've got some good news: I was at the national meeting today, to distribute resources across the country, and we've found the money to build a hospital in the Plains! Such a relief! For a while it was terrifying – on entry we were each given an equal proportion of money, and I was adamant that I would put mine towards that hospital. But then I got chatting to a guy from the Islands, and before I knew it he grabbed my money and used it to secure a hospital … for the Islands! The <*^@~#%!!! I was so astonished I could barely speak – I was so relieved when other Plains people decided to put their money into a hospital rather than a police force. I know I KNOW you're constantly saying Law and Order are important too. But I really believe that, once people's needs are met, once they no longer need to fight and steal JUST TO GET FOOD, once the vaccination programme begins and people have access to medicines, I honestly believe the violence will calm down. Trust me, Mum, we're going to be fine. I need to go now but just wanted to send a quick note with the medicine. Give my love to Dad and Granny and Grandad. And love to you xx

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Got life, got music, got theatre

I am old now and so drunk on just two glasses of wine and in the past six days I’ve had the kids on half-term and moved back into my family home that doesn’t suit me and left London three times and right now I’m sitting on a single bed in a twin room in a B&B in Malvern with my head swimming and my heart racing because tonight in a stupidly big room with an audience of not enough people tonight at Malvern Theatres I saw Uninvited Guests’ new show This Last Tempest and my body isn’t big enough to contain it, I can’t hold all at once everything it made me think and feel. I am trembling, every inch of me vibrating, with how much I love this show. Two weeks ago I was in Bristol with the company because they’ve asked me to be a board member and anyone who thinks that in some way this invalidates my response to it can right this minute just fuck right off, another time I’ll have a more temperate and articulate argument but just now the idea that what a FAN thinks is somehow less trustworthy than what a “distanced” “dispassionate” observer thinks can take a flying fucking jump. Have you seen the Nick Cave film 20,000 Days onEarth? There’s a bit in that where Cave and Warren heart Ellis talk about Nina Simone, about the transformational power of live performance, that reminded me (partly because I’d been talking to Peter McMaster not long before seeing the film about whether or how art can transform those who encounter it) of a very specific night in an upstairs room of a pub in Camden watching Tortoise play, I guess in 1994, and knowing that I would never need to take drugs, because I would always have live music to recalibrate my body and take over my brain; tonight watching This Last Tempest I had a bit of that again, heart so swollen I could hardly breathe and blood flowing with the cadence of the stage. This Last Tempest begins where Shakespeare’s Tempest ends – there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go into too much detail because I know I’m seeing it again in Colchester on November 27 and by then already it will have changed/honed/found its rhythm, and because I want everyone to go in with the same not-knowing, to experience the same wonder/surprise, but also there’s a part of me that wants to sit up until 3am dissecting every moment of it one by one – it begins with Prospero leaving the island and Arial and Caliban needing to learn how to live for themselves; it begins with that same speech by Gonzalo that was also the fulcrum of Chris Goode’s The Forestand the Field, the speech in which he envisages a non-hierarchical society that has no commerce or trade, no magistrates, no riches or poverty, no power to overthrow, a speech no teacher of mine ever adequately addressed; it begins with an awareness of climate change, our responsibility to change our intemperate behaviour, the (im)possibility of returning the earth to itself; it begins with the faltering attempts to love, to feel, of two creatures who have been shown scant love or compassion, the appropriation of others’ language to express those burgeoning emotions, the blossoming of empathy that comes with love; it begins with a longing for change, a desire to destroy and through that to create; it begins with the 2011 riots, with Crack Capitalism, with the fear of living in the end of times; it begins with sound, with frequencies just slightly beyond human hearing (how delicious to see this within a few days of Dickie Beau’s equally testing/enrapturing Camera Lucida), with an immense love of Nick Cave and My Bloody Valentine; it begins in my exploding fucking heart, and weeks of not really needing to write about theatre, and knowing this show is special because I couldn’t brush my teeth or sink into bed before vomiting words into a computer screen (honestly, if they’d set out to make a show that would be everything I love to distraction, they couldn’t have ticked more boxes). And there’s something so correct and pleasing and stupidly meta in the fact that this is me writing like Megan Vaughan writing like me, in response to Uninvited Guests reshaping Shakespeare to think about the weight of history – oh! I haven’t even mentioned the weight of history yet, the fear that however willingly we attempt to shape what could be, we will always be too scarred by what was – and the power of language to rule and ruin, divide and oppress.  And all the things it reminded me of: something else by Chris Goode, on want and desire in theatre, that I just read last week, and all the thinking I’ve been doing about class with/alongside Harry Giles (Shakespeare’s Miranda will weep for princes, but not the ordinary slaves), and the fact that from now until the end of the year women are effectively working for free because unequal fucking pay, and oh my god the whole sequence where gravity is destabilised, and somewhere at the heart of it, this song:

But now it’s 12.12am and my train leaves in exactly seven hours and there are still teeth to brush and pyjamas to pull on and a bed to climb into and I can’t write it all, all I can do now is marvel and shiver and wait for next time, impatiently and full of joy.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A scratch! Coney and documentation as storytelling

A quick introduction: I've been talking to Coney more or less since Dialogue began about "embedded" criticism, documentation of theatre, rethinking criticism - the whole Dialogue manifesto, basically - and last month co-director Annette Mees emailed me with an invitation: would I be interested in documenting in some way their new work, Early Days (of a Better Nation)? The invitation was an open one: come and play. As such, it was irresistible. 

Here's how Coney describe the show on their website: 

The war is over and the nation lies in ruins. You and your fellow survivors must build the beginnings of a new country. What are the rules you’re going to live by? And can you avoid the mistakes of the past?

What interests all of us is how to document the individual experiences of participants in the show - it's interactive - but also how to trace connections and bigger shapes in those responses: what difference age makes, for instance, or voting history. After the first day in the rehearsal room, I started thinking about the Mass Observation Archive, the Appendix to Orwell's 1984, shifts in journalism as a result of social media, and what a collection of personal writings from this fictional but plausible and not-unfamiliar nation in Europe might look like. I'm interested in how the documentation might slip between fact and fiction, in conveying truthfully how individual audience-members have acted within and responded to Early Days, but communicating that through storytelling. In how people who have attended the show might read the documentation differently from those who haven't.

What follows is a very first scratch at how some of these ideas might translate into words. It's based on that first day in the rehearsal room (6 October, 2014), with performers Milton Lopes, Michael Cusick and Angela Clerkin, director Annette Mees and writer Tom Bowtell. They were working on the opening dilemma of the show: whether or not to accept military aid from a UN-like organisation called the World Council for their ravaged country, Dacia. Anything in quotation marks (apart from the very last bit) is quoted verbatim from something spoken by the actors during an improvised debate driven by the key question: “Freedom vs Safety?” All character names use letters scrambled from my own. I have no idea if this works, if it gives away too much about the show, if it encourages audience-members to take sides before they've even walked into the performance space. Basically, it could all be a failure. But I've really enjoyed writing it, and that at least is something. 

In the spirit of scratch, all feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Collected within the Mass Observation Archive
Held in the Central Library of Dacia, The City
Date: 6 October, 2044

Nella Coats, shop-owner, The Islands
I'M SO ANGRY I CAN BARELY WRITE. The meeting happened today – the organisers managed to find a room in the old Town Hall, sparse and barely furnished but with four walls at least, the city is in ruins, I was horrified to see it – we crammed in, people from across the entire country, and I thought: now, at last, a chance for us to talk together, to remember who we are, the bonds of nationality and history that bind us. I really believe in this, I really believe in Angela when she says that we need to abandon the old ideas of “leaders” - so patrician – and create a new society, rooted in … I don't know: people. Each other! Sharing, looking out for each other. And I understand the city is broken and there are riots but there has always been a strain of selfishness there, of competition, that has made me glad to live elsewhere. And today that selfishness just took control of everything - Milton, the man who has returned to his homeland, war-wounded and attracting sympathy wherever he goes, he demanded that we accept the World Council's offer of military aid and WE SAID YES! We, we – not me, I didn't vote for this, I couldn't vote for soldiers on our streets, pointing guns in our faces. The short-sightedness is unbearable, it's infuriating! Can't they see that “military aid” becomes oppression, dictatorship, we will lose all our autonomy – and it doesn't stop the fighting, it doesn't stop people feeling frustrated at the lack of control over their own lives, it exacerbates that. I had to write this down – I'm in a makeshift bus, there are 20 of us crammed in here, travelling back to the Islands, and no one can talk to each other, everyone is too depressed, surely the wrong decision has been made. They'll see.

Len Stac, Mine-Owner, the Plains
A difficult but satisfying day. Pleased by the turn-out: representatives from the City, the Plains and the Islands, men and women, a mixed group, all clearly passionate about where the country was going. I thought Michael did well facilitating the debate – ultimately I'm glad he was chosen for the job and not me, I have too many interests of my own to consider. And yet, I was surprised by my own responses to the debate. I found Milton, the City representative, and Angela, whom I had encountered before through her writing about the Islands, equally persuasive, although arguing from opposite sides.

For Angela, to bring in the World Council's troops is to perpetuate the cycle of violence. She repeatedly said things like, “If I don't feel free, I don't feel safe”, and “You can't talk to someone who's pointing a gun at you”, and “I feel safer and freer when there's not a gun pointing at me”: all strong arguments against filling the streets with soldiers. But I sympathise with Milton when he says: “We need to have stability before we can be free.” Or: “People are getting killed and there's no one to protect them.” The City is in an appalling state: I felt intimidated just driving to the meeting. There was an extraordinary moment when Milton sat clicking his fingers, the sound was like the ricochet of gunshot, and sure enough, each click, he said, represented someone who had died while Angela was talking. I don't think we can argue with that.

I suppose what Angela never made clear is the lesson of history: the arrival of foreign troops in an unstable country generally causes a rise in instability and insurgency, not less. And while I agree with her that, as a country and a people, we need to take responsibility for our own behaviours and political relationships if we want to prevent another outbreak of war, I also believe Milton when he says that people in the city are starving and can't engage in rational conversation when they are struggling to survive. I'm glad Michael voted with Milton to accept the offer of aid and military support from the World Council. The next step is to create a strong democratic government to ensure that the return from occupation to independence happens smoothly.

Dan Mede, student, The City
Fuck fuck fuck: it's happened, they're bringing in the WC. I couldn't get into the meeting – the doors were barricaded – that says everything, right? I don't know what this means for us – OK it's been hard to get food but we've been living, WE'VE BEEN ALIVE – this stupid fucking country and its conservatism, that guy Milton getting the sympathy vote with his war wounds, I DON'T WANT TO LIVE IN A COUNTRY THAT BELIEVES IN MILITARY RULE we were fighting to change things to make the fighting for a future that's FAIR WHAT IS WRONG WITH THAT???

Mass Observation Record
Writer: Maddy Costa
Observer Number: 114
Date: 6 October, 2044
Place: The City, Dacia

I came here from the Plains by bus: a difficult but not unpleasant journey. The closer we came to the city, the more evident the signs of war. The Plains haven't been free of problems – the influx of refugees has put an appalling strain on our resources, and although we have space, it isn't infinite: shanty towns are growing up on the edges of villages, an uncomfortable situation for everyone – but the horrors of the city are of a different order entirely. Bricks and broken glass line every pavement, one city-dweller I spoke to told me that the streets are swept each morning to clear a path for pedestrians, but by night are filled with rampaging youths (her description) intent on destruction. The graffiti is lurid in colour and violent in expression: it's clear that people here have lost all sense of what they are fighting for. They are simply consumed by aggression.

At 2pm the meeting to discuss the offer from the World Council opened in a small side room in the former Town Hall. Armed guards stood at the door: a reflection of what might be to come, reassuring for many I'm sure. The meeting was ably facilitated by Michael, a journalist from the Plains: as the person (and the area) with the least extreme of viewpoints, it seems right that he should have held that central position. To his left stood Angela, a writer from the Islands; to his right, Milton, a former teacher turned revolution leader, who some say is responsible for the collapse of leadership after not stepping up to the task. Key arguments can be summarised as follows:

-         The violence needs to end, for the safety and security of the people – not just in the City, but across the Plains, too.
-         This is only possible if Dacia accepts the invitation from the World Council of military aid.
-         He understands the need for rational debate about the future direction of the country and its politics, but argues: “How can you talk if there's no one to protect your point of view.”
-         He is ready to listen to arguments for a new organisation of society and government when, and only when, “the problem is solved”: that is, the problem of violence on the City streets.

-         “Freedom or safety” isn't a choice for Angela: they are not mutually exclusive. Her sense of safety is contingent on her sense of freedom.
-         It is impossible to feel free with military troops patrolling the streets.
-         “By sharing resources, we could pacify the threat”, ie of violence. This way, foreign aid would not be required. She refers here to the wealth of resources in the Plains: I'm not sure how aware she is of the refugee problem there.
-         “The way forward is that we all talk.”

Given the polarised nature of the debate, Michael's vote became key: he occupies the middle ground. I believe he gave each argument due consideration before voting in favour of accepting aid from the World Council. Relief was palpable among the older generations of city-dwellers; among its youth, I feel less certain. Islanders by and large seemed unreconciled to the decision: their sense of autonomy is strong. The meeting disbanded with the sounds of relief and resentment in the air. I travelled back to the Plains clear on only one thing: the need to talk to every farmer, every miner, every refugee, even every child in my region, and encourage them to take part in the vital debate over the future of our country.

Before I left, I spoke to Nadia Otas, a City woman, who used to run a shop before the looting and violence made it impossible. Her response to the debate was highly emotional. I have attempted to record her words as accurately as possible.

"At last, at last: someone has listened. We need the World Council here, we need help. I feel so lucky to have been present at this meeting, Milton is such an inspiring speaker, he showed up the Islanders' idealism for what it is. Hollow promises! They have no solutions to the real concrete problems we're facing here. I don't feel frightened any more. I'll be able to find food for my children! We'll be a stable, normal country again. I'm so grateful."