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."

Sunday, 14 September 2014

all the right moves, all the wrong words

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

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

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

and this one

and this one

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

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

I listen to that voice and I swoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 18 August 2014

each in their own way flailing

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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