Friday, 16 December 2011

long after tonight is all over

Jimmy Stewart, an anthropologist from Mars, analyses love and happiness in humans (and rabbits). Who could resist a title like that? OK, maybe if you don't know who Jimmy Stewart is: I met two people at BAC last night who hadn't a clue, which made me feel horribly old. Jimmy Stewart! It's a Wonderful Life: he's so disillusioned, so tired of life's burdens, he considers suicide, so an angel called Clarence comes to earth and shows him how the world would look if he actually went ahead with it, makes him appreciate all the big and tiny differences he makes to people's lives (it's a romance, so Stewart's character is humbled and awed, rather than crushed by the weight of responsibility). The Philadelphia Story: he's the soft-nosed newspaper reporter who wants to be a novelist, caught between Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, who has a drunken fling with the rich girl and almost misses out on his own true love. Harvey: he's a bumbling alcoholic whose best friend is a six-foot-tall rabbit that no one else can see, whose every waking act radiates his firm belief in the value of kindness, politeness and generosity. The Shop Around the Corner: an obscurer one this, and one of my favourite films ever, a love story set in Budapest, exquisitely directed by Ernst Lubitsch, about two shop assistants who snipe at each other constantly, unaware that each one is the anonymous pen friend to whom they write idealistic, intellectual, courtly love letters. And that's just the fluff (relatively speaking). Vertigo, Rear Window, Anatomy of a Murder, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – perfect in every one.

Tassos Stevens isn't much like Jimmy Stewart to look at: he's big and beardy, like a friendly bear (Addis Berner Bear, maybe). He has a hat like one Stewart might have worn, though: more on that later. He's also spent considerably longer dissecting what makes Stewart brilliant than I have: I've always been too preoccupied by adoring him to form any more high-minded thoughts. All this is slightly by the by, because while Tassos is sort of playing Jimmy Stewart in this show, he isn't really: he's riffing on Stewart's “everyman” reputation, considering what it is to reflect society while at the same time seeming somewhat apart from it, mysterious and remote. His Stewart is from Mars – because that's where men are from, aren't they? And if he can't find his way home, he needs to find a way to settle on Earth. How do humans settle? How do we find our place in the world? For most of us – or is it just for the super-lucky? - it happens through love.

By happy coincidence, I saw Jimmy Stewart... in the same week that I've been doing a lot of thinking and talking about The Taming of the Shrew. The multiplicity of perspectives on this play is daunting: is it inherently misogynistic, or is that an interpretation imposed on the text? Is the relationship between Kate and Petruchio abusive or transformative, sadistic/masochistic or mutually supportive? Is their love damaged, or just different? It is impossible to know, or understand, because their relationship – like all relationships – is unique, and comprehensible only from within.

Tassos's Jimmy Stewart, however, wants to understand. He's listened to pop songs and begun to recognise the difference between “love” and “in love” (oh I've had trouble with that one in my time – and listening to pop songs, particularly from the 1950s and 60s, was instructional and ruinous in roughly equal measure). He talks to rabbits and people in bars and discovers that love's meaning isn't general or universal but singular, personal, individual. He pulls out of his hat – no, silly, not a rabbit – a pile of index cards on which we and people who have seen the show before us have defined, if only briefly, what love means. Some describe romantic incidents, and some mention love for their children. Some quote from pop songs, and some sound confused. Their words are luminous, fiery, acute. The poignancy of this sharing with strangers is immense.

This is such a magical show: tender, questioning, hopeful and sad. I was quiet watching it, because there were just three of us with Tassos, nestled round a wood stove in a drawing room at BAC (a room that, in my other life, I know as a buggy park from when I take my kids to the Bee's Knees playspace), and although I was spellbound from first word to last, I felt slightly too self-conscious to react too visibly. But in the hours since seeing it I've been laughing (the faintly autistic measurement of love in units of Chaka is unspeakably genius), marvelling, shivering slightly, most of all thinking: of the times I have felt, and still feel, “in love”, of the intensity of my love for my children, and how I would never actually define “love” as love for them, but love for my husband, of the ebb and flow of that love, its fragility and durability. And I know, know absolutely, that every time I hear You Always Hurt the One You Love (Taming of the Shrew again!) or Roy Orbison sing In Dreams, or Chaka Khan's I Feel For You, I'll be transported right back to BAC and Tassos's side.

And for those who don't know, the title comes from this song by Irma Thomas, one of the most romantic expressions of explosive falling-in-love as shooting-for-Mars that pop music has ever produced:


Friday, 9 December 2011

scratching at the surface of ontroerend goed

Note for anyone who hasn't seen Audience and is planning to attend the run at Soho: please be aware that I give away heaps about the show, so if you want to go in completely fresh, don't read this until after you've seen it. Thanks!

What a slippery bunch of people Ontroerend Goed are. Before I met up with their artistic director, Alexander Devriendt, I was warned to beware: he's an arch seducer, who would fix me with his soulful brown eyes and hypnotise me. I left the interview secure in the knowledge that I was immune to his charms, and wondering idly whether his eyes perhaps weren't brown but hazel-green.

I haven't seen all of their work, for two reasons: they arrived in the UK while I was distracted by pregnancy and the implacable demands of small children; plus their shows required a level of audience participation that made me shrink. I'm mostly too fearful a theatre-goer (and, more consistently, too much of a control freak) to submit to being bound, blindfolded and steered around in a wheelchair, as you are in The Smile Off Your Face, too gullible to risk the sweet-talk of Internal.

So it wasn't until 2010, and the run of Teenage Riot in Edinburgh, that I caught up with, if not OG, at least Devriendt. And I hated Teenage Riot, so much so that I wrote a post-script to Lyn Gardner's review detailing everything I felt to be wrong with the show. What infuriated and saddened me was the sexism, the MTV-fuelled vision of women as semi-clad playthings and anorexics, and the teenagers' willingness to promote that vision. Even when they spat in the face of the audience for “creating” this sexualised adult culture, or appeared to be rejecting it, they did so in a fashion that merely underscored their acceptance. When two of the girls started to give earnest advice on how not to gain weight, I thought of all the teenagers watching who might go home and put their tips into action, and wanted to scream. This was the gender status quo masquerading as audacious subversion, and I wanted nothing to do with it. (Recently I unearthed Matt Trueman's typically penetrating review of the show on Carousel of Fantasies and began to see the shortcomings in my bridling response, but that's another story.)

It was that disappointment, more than apprehension, that disinclined me to engage with OG until the second incarnation of BAC's One-on-One festivals earlier this year. What persuaded me was word-of-mouth at the first One-on-One: anyone who took part in A Game of You talked about it with a huge grin on their face, and declared it the hit of the night. Perhaps inevitably, part of me was disappointed again when I finally joined in – although less by the show itself than my involvement in it. I didn't give myself to it; I was reserved, reluctant to speak.

Some of that was down to mental discomfort: throughout I felt watched and judged. You enter and sit in a cramped and stifling curtained space, facing an empty glass jug and an oversized mirror that – I intuitively knew – conceals people sitting behind it. When a man came in and began talking to me, I barely said a word. If I remember rightly, in the next room I had to watch and discuss a recording of myself in front of the mirror. My response to each question was evasive: I didn't want anything I said to be used against me, so I kept as much as I could to myself. Further along, I watched another performer impersonate me while I sat behind the mirror of the first room, and the incompleteness of the taciturn character I saw made me feel oddly wistful.

At the heart of all this naval-gazing is another room, possibly the most interesting and excruciating of the whole scenario. Here I watched a recording of another audience member sitting in the first room. The performer who sat with me asked what I thought she did for a living, about her personal life, what I thought her house was like. Answering the questions, I felt painfully divided. On the one hand, how could I possibly know anything about this woman? All I could do was construct wayward surmises from her appearance, which seemed an absurd, even malicious thing to do. On the other hand, something about her sleek hair, mousy but with blonde highlights, her enviably nice, smart-casual brown dress, subtly detailed around the neckline, her generally neat appearance, her soft face, her failure to notice that the jug was empty until she tried to pour a drink, gave me the irresistible impression that she was utterly ditzy, that she worked in admin but frequently made mistakes, and that her personal life was a concatenation of failed relationships. I was appalled by the belittling thoughts in my head: under no circumstances could I voice them, even in the privacy of that little room. So I hedged and I fudged and still managed to sound pretty nasty and judgmental, chiefly because she had sleek, mousy-blonde hair.

Fast-forward to the final bit of the show, and I'm handed a CD: on it is written “About you”. My stomach lurched as I guessed that this was a recording of someone else talking about me in that treacherous enclosed space. And that I, too, had been recorded. And that the sleek-haired woman would be handed her own CD, and would hear all the demeaning things I'd said. Part of me was horrified: no one wants to hear themselves being put down. And part of me was thrilled by the transgression: there would be no retribution, because she would never know that the speaker was me.

For months afterwards, my CD sat on my desk: I couldn't bring myself to listen. But in the week before travelling to Edinburgh for the festival I finally plucked up the courage, and was startled. The woman talking about me was adorable. She guessed that I write, that I'm a perfectionist, that I have a controlling streak, that I am far more vain than I would admit to being; she guessed that I was putting off children for the sake of work (which is how my life would be if I had been left to my own devices); that I live in a house without junk or clutter (although that's only true because my husband makes me tidy up). There was such kindness and generosity in her portrait of me: a kindness and generosity I had failed to demonstrate or even locate within myself.

The more I mused on the unknown woman who had talked about me, the unknown woman about whom I had talked, the various images of myself, both self-generated and generated by others, the more I appreciated what Ontroerend Goed had achieved. A Game of You made me completely rethink, then rethink again and again, over the course of several months, how I present myself, how people understand that presentation, how I understand other people's projections of self, and how entire social structures are built from those projections. And it does so without even seeming to – by playing a cheeky little game that lasts barely 20 minutes. What an extraordinary, subtle piece of work.

It was with all this in my head that I arrived at Audience, OG's new show in Edinburgh. That, and the crackling of a furore already surrounding the show following early performances, most of which I'd managed to block out, although not enough that I didn't feel horribly apprehensive about taking part. I find traverse theatre intimidating enough (perhaps it's sheer egoism that makes me fear I'm being watched at all times), let alone being filmed and seeing my image projected in remorseless close-up. And yet, as the camera began its slow sweep across the room, what struck me wasn't the aggression of its attention but the gentleness. It picked up the flare of a sleeve, the mottled pink-and-white skin of tensely clenched fingers, the flickering of a nervous mouth trying not to smile: tiny details, so insignificant, but made beautiful by the camera's concentrated caress.

And then comes the ugliness: the moment of division. The camera is trained on a young woman sitting near the front, someone radiant yet unobtrusive – unlike the raucous women sitting at the other end of her row, pretty but brash, noisily laughing – and one of the performers begins verbally abusing her. It's astonishingly uncomfortable, but electrifying too, at least on the night I saw it, because barely had the abuse begun when a man sitting behind me stood up and hurled a boot at the performer, with an aim almost true. As others in the audience began to clamour for the performer to stop, part of me felt annoyed: I wanted to see where OG were going. As it happened, where they were going was a place I found utterly repulsive, and I was relieved when the OG performers moved the show on – despite the audience's obstreperous desire to continue arguing over this scene.

Even as I watched, I had a sense that what had needed to happen had happened: that someone had reacted, strongly, but that the show wasn't about that reaction any more than it was about that provocation. What followed was an interrogation of intervention, of what we will stand up for and against, individually and as a group, in a variety of contexts. As the audience continued to grumble, I wondered how many of the people in the room had sat in, I don't know, the Royal Court, and watched silently as a woman was raped or abused. How many had witnessed couples arguing in the street, women crying as men raged at them, and walked on by. As a spin-doctored political debate was staged by the performers, as music blared and we were encouraged to stand up and dance, as the images of the audience melted into archive film of rallies and dissent and dictators and liberal leaders, I wondered how we choose to behave the way we do, whether we behave the same regardless of context, whether we're aware of influence and wholly able to resist it. I thought about the rioters who had torn through London just a few nights before: who was leading, who was following? Why was it so difficult to maintain a clear personal response to their actions? How can one maintain a sense of self within society? What is that self anyway?

By the end of the show I felt as though I was vibrating – it's the first time in ages, really ages, when I haven't just earwigged other people's conversations in the foyer afterwards but asked them what they thought. What I discovered was that I was very much in a minority in loving the show. What most people said to me – comments echoed by Lyn Gardner when I spoke to her a couple of days later – was that they thought the political content was naff, that the real meat of the show was in that attack on the girl and everything that followed was heavy-handed and sentimental. Immediately I worried: had I just not been smart enough to see the show's weaknesses? That nervousness is yet to leave me (another thing I hate about myself), although I felt a lot better after reading Joyce McMillan's positive review and finding I wasn't totally alone.

Since talking to Ontroerend Goed, I've wondered whether the naivety those audience members reacted against doesn't generate directly from Devriendt. We were, admittedly, both performing in the interview, and there is, of course, the strong possibility that I was unwittingly mesmerised by him, but even so, there seemed to be something disarmingly ingenuous about him, a softness that I hadn't expected. Some things he said that have stayed with me: he is the accident child of a painter (father) and a businesswoman; Joeri Smet, his best friend and collaborator in OG, describes him as a weird combination of their artistic and commercial natures. He is genuinely, deeply affected by reviews, taking every criticism to heart. Talking about the attack on the girl in Audience, he told me about the night his girlfriend was similarly abused by a comedian: he wanted to react, “but if I would have I would be the laughing stock because it would seem I was not getting the joke. And I hated that feeling, I felt so unmanly: I didn't protect my girlfriend. My girlfriend said, 'Hey, I can handle it.' I was like, yes, but my cavalier feeling, my white knight, I couldn't be. I wanted to have the opportunity for an audience to be a white knight, I wanted to give that freedom.” I've put what he said more or less verbatim, for one because it seemed so extraordinary to me, both absurd from a feminist point of view, and curiously romantic in its fairy-tale sense of manhood; and because it's clear to me that this is exactly what that scene in Audience is about: inviting a man to behave like a white knight, to throw a boot at the performer and save the pretty girl. No wonder the women around me were so infuriated when they weren't allowed space to speak; come to that, why wasn't I? The gendering is retrograde and ridiculous. Contrarily, I like Maria Dafneros' point of view: she resisted the scene during rehearsals, performs her disapproval during the course of the show, and wonders whether, “These guys that get up and say, 'stop it, leave her alone', I don't know if they realise that they take her choice away. One girl actually said afterwards, 'What if I wanted to spread my legs? Let me do that.' But they were not busy with that, they were busy with another issue, whatever it was.”

Another thing Devriendt said, or at least intimated, that continues to play on my mind is that he feels a sense of guilt about Internal, troubled that so many people felt betrayed by the show. A Game of You, he said, was specifically designed in response to those adverse reactions: “I'm really protective of you,” he says of audiences in A Game of You, “I don't break the trust of audience there – and I found a way to be more confronting because nobody will have seen that you didn't give enough, nobody knows what you have experienced there.” In the moment of him talking about this, I agreed with him absolutely; then walking home from the interview I thought of the girl I had talked about morosely listening to her CD and felt duped. Again, reading Matt Trueman on A Game of You was usefully clarifying: he argues that it isn't individual personalities being scrutinised but the act of judgment. But then his response came straight from his response to Internal, and it's not one that I, in all my guilt and tendency to self-criticism, feel wholly able to share.

A question hangs over Ontroerend Goed, raised by Ian Shuttleworth in the comments below Lyn's brief piece on Audience published during the festival: are they actually in control of what they do? Do they realise the extent to which they affect people? Lyn is convinced that they are, that Devriendt is an arch manipulator who knows exactly what he's doing. Reading Matt on Teenage Riot – which Devriendt essentially forced him to see again, to watch through his own (ie Devriendt's imposed) perspective – inclines me to agree with her. And yet, when Devriendt talked about protecting people in A Game of You, there was no sense of him accounting for those CDs at the end – a lot of people, Lyn tells me, never pluck up the courage to listen to theirs. When he talked about people feeling betrayed by Internal, he said: “I should have seen that one coming.” His tone was properly rueful: he felt bamboozled, and stupid, and disappointed in himself. When I asked him whether Audience wasn't perhaps compromised by the fact that so many people were coming in knowing what to expect, and intending to intervene, he confessed he had been caught out by that, too.

Something else that has stayed with me, although we didn't talk about it, was a line I read in another interview with Devriendt: “Joeri wanted to live in Berlin [when they were in their very early 20s] and I begged him not to go, because I felt I needed him to create amazing work. He stayed.” Whereas Devriendt struck me as open and genuine, Joeri Smet seemed contained, a little bit intimidating, someone to be approached with caution. Perhaps I felt this because of his role in Audience: he's the performer whose political speech, bland at first, increasingly firebrand, ends in a Nazi salute. There was something Smet said about Internal, when we had finished talking but the recorder was still running, that intrigues me: “It made me love people more.” Had he not loved them very much before?

In his way, Devriendt is as inscrutable as Smet. The work they make together demands that you take long, hard looks at yourself, yet offers no respite if you don't like what you see. Before the interview, one of my key questions, the one I was most looking forward to asking, was what their shows have taught them about themselves. I spoke to four people from the company – Devriendt, Smet, Dafneros and Tiemen Van Haver, coincidentally the person who guided me around A Game of You (and who told me that when he's appeared in that show as an audience member, filling in gaps, three people have described him as gay, teaching him once and for all to take the things people say about him with a big handful of salt) – and not one of them answered me straight. Smet came closest: “If it works, people really want to share things with you. You hear life stories or choices that people are struggling with you that reflect on you as well, because you have the same question or struggle. Then after a while you, I, ask the questions that really interest me, so I get a lot of answers to that same question.” What those questions or struggles were, though, he didn't say. Otherwise, what they all talked about was what they had learned about other cultures, about group mechanisms around the world. Always, always, this tension between the group and the individual, the impersonal and the personal, the predictable and unpredictable.

I wanted to write this because there wasn't space in the short piece I wrote for G2 to ask or answer all the questions I have about this company. It was supposed to be clarifying; instead, my thoughts feel more tangled than ever. But that, I suppose, is what makes OG so fascinating. Their idealism is laced with cunning; they put audiences under a microscope while remaining elusive themselves. Perhaps if I had seen more of their work I'd have a better handle on who they are, what they do, how they do it. But somehow, I doubt it.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

goodbye to the dancing queens

I've been thinking about leaving the Actionettes for a while now, and in my drama-queen way it's always felt like contemplating sawing off one of my own limbs using a rusty bread knife. Apart from anything else, performing with them has long been my single atonement for the sins of criticism, my meagre attempt to give something back to the world. But last week it finally happened. For a few days afterwards I felt a bit like I did after a big car accident several years ago: fine, perhaps relieved, quite possibly numb with shock, replaying the events over and over in my head as though to confirm their reality. I still remember the song I was singing to myself when I had the accident: Nosferatu Man by Slint (how's that for ridiculous melodrama?). The song that came up on my mp3 player, moments before I realised I had finally decided to say goodbye, scouring my mind to clarity, was this one:

“You won't find it by yourself, you're gonna need some help, and you won't fail with me around, come on let's go.” Oh, Trish Keenan. I've idolised her for so long; I'm still mourning her death earlier this year. Based on nothing more than listening to her songs, I always felt there was something brave and uncompromising about her: she lived by her own truth, and made/makes me want to live by mine.

So there was that in my head that fateful (drama queen!!) Thursday morning, and there was this: a shard of Hal Hartley's 1991 short Ambition.

Dwell on uncomplicated beauty: the landscape, the sun on your face. Nothing touches you. Keep the image of your death cheerfully before you at all times. Gain perspective. Seek to clarify and comfort, not to obscure or mystify. Your aspirations are pointless; your ambitions come to nothing.

I've carried these words in my head for half my life: they were a teenage mantra, although I realise now my fallible memory conveniently let slip that final, trenchant line. And I know, I know: written out plain, in this context, the words clang with hyperbole. No wonder the adolescent me clung to them. But within the film itself – which, by the glorious power of youtube, I've just watched for the first time in maybe a decade, revelling in its note-perfect oddity, the violence of its choreography, its concision and starkness of expression – these words radiate a kind of hope. Instead of the selfish pursuit of personal aggrandizement, choose friendship, kindness, humanity. Instead of money or fame, seek truth and beauty. As a teenager, I felt there were words of warning here; as a thirtysomething – and this film is so the work of someone starting out on their 30s, shaking off the gung-ho confidence of their 20s (a confidence you don't even know you have) and struggling to figure out what meaning can be achieved – I find solace. I know I'm being laughed at a little bit, but I can hear Hartley laughing at himself, too. He asks the same questions I ask, and to hear him do so both pains and assuages me. I'm pretty sure I'll never gain perspective – but, in a funny way, leaving the Actionettes has been one way of trying to.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

we bake cake! and nothing's the matter!

I've known my friend Sam for a quarter of a century, longer than anyone in my life apart from my family. Long enough for her to feel like my favourite cousin, a sensation amplified by the fact that our backgrounds are so similar, despite their surface differences. Her family is Iraqi, mine Cypriot; hers Jewish, mine Greek Orthodox: we grew up under the shared shadow of patriarchal cultures that paradoxically revere the matriarch yet restrict the exercise of her power to the confines of the kitchen, prioritise the young male over the young female in infuriating and detrimental ways, and reinforce gender inequality through the exercise of myriad religious hypocrisies. It's largely through talking to her, I think, that I've come to realise how close Cyprus is to the Middle East, and not just geographically.

We bonded on a school trip in our early teens, when I revealed that I superstitiously wore an evil eye at all times to ward off bad luck (an absurdity I maintained until the trinket's ineffectiveness became evident even to me), and she countered that admission with something I found yet more preposterous: that in moments of fear or stress she would carry a few grains of salt on her person, also to keep evil at bay. The rest of our teens were spent swapping stories of one or another ridiculous edict imposed by our overbearing, overprotective parents, people out of step with their place and their times, their constrictive attitudes locked in a lost past and a distant country and a culture that I – I won't speak for Sam here – refused to acknowledge as my own. By some miracle, they allowed us to leave home to go to university; a cousin of mine was not so lucky.

While I spent most of that time at university floundering and wishing I were elsewhere (usually I was, on trains to London, or at gigs, escaping rather than finding myself), Sam seized the opportunity to discover who she could be and make herself so. She began to write plays, and direct them, too; and she's still writing plays today. I don't often see her work, because I'm shamefully lazy, and I don't often read it, either, because she hasn't shown me any of her work for something like a decade, not since I dismissed one of her characters as too autobiographical and prone not only to spout nonsense but to assume she was funny when doing so. (I was particularly riled by a long speech in which this character declared broccoli non-kosher because bugs could nestle unseen among the flower heads; I was duly chastened when, in performance, this speech prompted much laughter from the audience and, several years later, I failed to wash my broccoli properly and discovered the corpse of a caterpillar floating in the saucepan. I hope I've become a more thoughtful critic since then.)

I finally made the effort recently to read Cling To Me Like Ivy, which toured the UK last year, and I'm so glad I did, because it's exhilarating. It's set in the kitchen of a rabbi, in the fortnight before his daughter marries a man she has never even touched, because to do so would contravene Orthodox rulings. The kitchen is, inevitably, governed by the rabbi's indomitable mother, whose every other utterance is a firecracker; and further enlivened by the daughter's Hindu friend, who evades her own family's restrictive rulings by lying through her teeth. Oh, so familiar... But what I most loved about it was how alien much of the experience of the play felt: not only the minute but absorbing discussion of Jewish law (the scene in which the rabbi and the fiance pore over books and internet sites, trying to figure out whether the daughter is allowed to wear the wig that has been custom-made for her wedding, is exquisite in its pacing, vitality, wisdom, humour and heart), but its depiction of fully engaged political protest. It pains me that the play never reached London: for the selfish reason that I want to see it, and for the suspicion it supports that the capital's new-writing theatres are more enthralled by their own brands than they are by plays themselves.

Apart from theatre, and books, and feminism, and ingrained superstition, what Sam and I chiefly bond over is food. For a brief period we had a kind of supper club, in celebration of our mothers and their unconventional backgrounds, along with the children of an Egyptian Jew and (I think) an Iraqi/Assyrian Christian. Much halloumi was consumed. I think we both feel a certain identification with the line, “We bake cake! And nothing's the matter!”, from Maurice Sendak's boundlessly brilliant children's book In the Night Kitchen, which Sam gave to my daughter and which cheers me every time I read it. A couple of years ago I mentioned to Sam that I was working on a cake that involved dried figs, orange and almond; these ingredients being among her favourites (along with aubergines and lemons), she made me promise to give her the recipe if I ever managed to get it right. So this is for Sam, with much admiration and love:

Fig, orange and almond cake

250g dried figs – 25ml cointreau – 1 tbsp orange flower water

125g butter – 125g light muscovado sugar – 4 eggs

125g plain flour – 125g ground almonds – 2tsp baking powder

1 tbsp cointreau – 1tsp almond essence

Slightly stupidly, I didn't write down the method for this, only the ingredients, but I'm pretty sure this is how I did it: put about 250ml water and 25ml or so cointreau into a saucepan and bring it to the boil. Meanwhile cut the dried figs into eighths and when the liquid is boiling add the figs along with the orange flower water, which is entirely optional and just something I happened to have around on the day. Simmer for a good 15 minutes, then leave to cool for a bit.

Cream the butter and sugar, then beat in the eggs one by one. Fold in the flour, ground almonds and baking powder, followed by the tbsp of cointreau and the almond essence, and the drained figs.

Line a cake tin with greaseproof paper, pour in the batter and bake in a 180/gas 4 oven for about 50 minutes, bearing in mind that I'm making that time up in the moment of writing, so it could take an extra 10 or so minutes for a knife inserted in the cake to come out clean.

Friday, 21 October 2011

the end of the world, or else the beginning

[I should have posted this weeks ago. Huge apologies to Chris Goode for the delay, and even bigger thanks to everyone involved in this project for having me along for the ride.]

Let's play a game. You're a child and the time is December, a little before Christmas, in those unthinkable days before Amazon. Your mother needs to buy presents for your cousins. You go with her to the toy shop, but you're not allowed to touch anything, only trail after her and look, look, look. You know you're going to get presents yourself, and as you watch your mother fill her basket you try to guess what those gifts might be, how your Christmas might take shape. Imagine the excitement, the impatience, the moments of boredom, the shivers of wonder...

… and before you know it, you'll have daydreamed yourself into Chris Goode's rehearsal room for the Cendrars project.

A form of this toyshop analogy blurted from me on my first day in the room, sitting in a circle with Chris and the three performers – Jamie Wood, Gemma Brockis, Clive Mendus – for the morning check-in. Every day working with Chris starts like this: you sit together and ask, how are you? You can answer that blandly: I'm OK, everything's fine. But really Chris is inviting us to pause and acknowledge the baggage we're bringing in from the outside world, how it's affecting us and how it might colour our thinking during the day. Within that is a silent invitation, for each of us to take up a little of everyone else's baggage and help to shift it to the side of the room. It's a way of putting down guards, opening arms, entering each other's orbit.

What I brought into the room that day was more than a little apprehension and an effervescing curiosity. As if I didn't feel enough like a child already, one of Chris's first actions on my arrival was to pass me a lump of sticky red goo and a thick plastic straw and challenge me to blow up a balloon. There's quite a lot of goo in the writings of Blaise Cendrars: “the sun drools” in The End of the World; an exquisite line in The Eubage runs, “Life effectively, manifestly, and formally is space and time, sublimated, molten, perfumed. Honey.” Even so, why I might be sitting in the basement beneath Camden People's Theatre inflating an approximation of a sheep's stomach lining felt faintly mysterious to me.

I hadn't heard of Cendrars before Chris emailed about the project; I get the impression I'm not the only one. There was homework to do before joining rehearsals: biographical material and key texts to read, assorted musics to respond to. The biography is fascinating: as his pseudonym suggests, Cendrars took a phoenix approach to the living and telling of his life, torching his existence, rewriting with the ashes, torching them anew. I could easily imagine someone staging these multiple stories, but not Chris somehow.

There were tantalising hints of narrative in the music Chris collated: I'll Read You a Story by Colleen sounded gloopy and glassy, secretive and ominous, and filled my head with twinkling stars; Messiaen's Jardin du Sommeil d'Amour scans those stars romantically, savouring their mystery. The second movement of Ligeti's Violin Concerto conjured up alien voices that became unnerving and cacophonous in Giles Swayne's Void-Light-Darkness. Honegger's Pacific 231 is more menacing still, exploding and spiralling as though trapped in a war of the worlds.

When I started reading Cendrars himself (The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame; The Eubage, or At the Antipodes of Unity; and two translations of The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of Little Jeanne of France), all the ideas and images suggested by the music were there in print, in his queasily strange, headily beautiful grapplings with science, the galaxy, molecules, God; with the radiance, the horror, the incomprehensibility of being. I could see the connections, yet – that childishness again – couldn't fathom what they might mean, what Chris might be planning to put on stage.

The texts, of course. As a hint of how defiantly unstageable they are, here is section 39 of The End of the World:

It rains. It rains. The water rises. The needles of the conifers ramify, their tips flatten, they open out into umbels. Fungi grow on all the branches, floating with the current. Algae, yeasts, black sponges. Debris of all kinds accumulate at the bottom of the lakes. Plesiosauria in decomposition.

And here's a little of The Eubage:

In the river of Time which flows in Space, lazy trout can be glimpsed among the luxuriant grasses. The water is clear, the current limpid. At the bottom, among the ultraviolet and infrared rays of decomposed light, we can see the foaming of the odomagnetic gems that make up the aeroliths. Metals, rocks and roots, grasses and all the leaves are rich with their own life. The vegetation is audacious.

The task Chris set himself with this project was to create a theatre as evocative, multi-textured, elemental, tactile, as Cendrars' writing: a theatre, as he described it in the rehearsal room, of materials – light, colour, sound, even smell – to which human activity plays a supporting role. Audacious, indeed.

But possible, thanks in part to an enticing bit of Heath Robinson gadgetry idling in a corner of the rehearsal room. The invention of puppeteer and theatre-maker Mervyn Millar, it has an aged Singer sewing-machine table for its base; on top of that a turntable; above that are suspended two perspex sheets; finally a light source and video camera trained on the lot. Mervyn uses this contraption to create live projected animation, both moving images (of objects placed on the whirring turntable) and multi-layered still images (objects placed on the perspex sheets), which also shift beneath his hands. Mervyn, then, could show us “jumbled constellations” and “the enormous hybrid butterfly of the Summit of the Hours whose wings are isochronal”; he could make “all the cities in the world rise on the horizon” and “the mountains of Mexico stumble in the light”. The materials he used were simple enough: a bitter gourd and a scotch egg, star confetti and fake fur, turmeric and a tube of honey. But in performance, the light, the projecting and Mervyn's absorbed manipulations transformed them into eerie visions, glowing and alive.

Watching Mervyn rustle up these animations, you could see how easy it might be to film Cendrars' texts: indeed, The End of the World is written as though describing a film, one that spools crazily through disaster, then rewinds breathlessly to an oblivious yet racked calm. But, Chris argues, cinema is too escapist and flatly fictional for Cendrars: what he wants to achieve with this piece is a complex dance of different realities, different fictions, the presence and immediacy of live physical performance layered with the out-of-time otherworldliness of Cendrars' imagery, layered too with the audience's own perceptions of those fictions and realities.

The actors' task becomes two-fold: to navigate the layers themselves, and guide the audience through them. And this was the part of the process that most fascinated me: how the actors would transform Cendrars' teeming, fervid text into action. Chris was very specific about where this might happen: tacked to a wall in the rehearsal room was a long strip of brown paper, with each minute of the show marked on it, blocked into sections devoted to each text, and sections that would and wouldn't be populated by performers. The opening passage, from The Eubage, would play with light and sound; the next, from The End of the World, would open with the person of God but then focus on imagery. In the middle would be an edited reading of The Prose of the Trans-Siberian, with Gemma as the young Cendrars and Jamie as little Jeanne, spiralling through time, war, nostalgia and love. Following that, Mervyn's global destruction (dubbed the noon cadenza), and another scene with God melting into an embodiment of the horoscope, before a final sweep of light to close.

Day two of rehearsals was spent plucking phrases from The End of the World and The Eubage to use as jumping-off points: from the beginning, Chris's intention was to avoid flights of fantasy, to achieve specificity in performance by rooting all activity in the text. Arriving on day four, I looked over the postcards on which the quartet had written their choices and was struck by the level of duplication: working individually, they had instinctively been drawn to the same bits of text. “God the father has set himself up on Mars, the barnum of religions”; “He sends a coded message to the angel of Notre Dame”; “The disk of the sun grows a notch larger and its light weakens”; “Spectacle of war unleashed”; “An obscure eye closes on all that has been”.

Watching Clive, Gemma and Jamie devise snippety scenes from these fragments of text was extraordinary. The process is thrillingly mysterious to me: they would sit quietly, and the air around them would thrum with thought and possibility, and it would be impossible to know what might happen when they started to move. The afternoon on which they joined forces to give shape and character to God, I marvelled as ideas fired silently between them, igniting each other's imaginations. Sometimes, this mystery of making felt impenetrably opaque to me. On another afternoon, Jamie and Gemma, working from The Eubage, decided to sit either side of another sewing machine table, taking competitive bites from an apple that they passed to each other by means of a simple string pulley. I have raked and raked The Eubage, trying to figure out what provoked this action, and remain utterly perplexed. But it was so immediately, brilliantly evocative, even I knew that it had to go on stage.

The more of a feel I gained for what would and wouldn't be used in the final performance, the more discomforted I felt by my presence in the room. There is something so vulnerable about people experimenting with ideas: as the outsider, I didn't want to seem a prying, judgmental eye. More discombobulating still was the gradual realisation that Chris himself was vulnerable and searching and uncertain of what he was creating; the tension of this was unbearable to me. It broke, as a storm breaks, bringing brightness and a wash of clarity, one afternoon when he confessed to the room that all the tools he had once used as a director seemed neither useful nor desirable here. Instead he wanted to embrace the “creeping organicness” of the actors' work: appropriately enough, given the organic fervour of Cendrars' writing.

Chris's admission was a useful reminder that self-consciousness has little value in a rehearsal room. What he wants is a room in which people feel easy enough to, for instance, have a little nap if they need to, as Gemma did, to Chris's immense delight, one afternoon while the rest of us watched an episode of Buck Rogers. There was a lovely, unembarrassed calm in that nap of hers, a calm I didn't feel myself until I spent a giggly, breathless morning with Gemma, Jamie and Clive messing around with the charleston (Gemma is terribly good at it), for a dance sequence in the Trans-Siberian section. On the last day I sat with Jamie, helping him to stuff broccoli florets into a pink balloon (I can't even begin to explain that one), and talking about the difference my being there might or might not have made: he gently reminded me that theatre-makers are almost permanently being criticised, which makes the rehearsal room something of a haven. Gratifyingly, all felt I'd respected that.

By the day of the performance, I felt I had finally been absorbed by the group, which raised a question for me: how might that complicity affect the way in which I watched the piece? As the solo audience of the multiple runs-through, I couldn't tell. The almost-finished show felt incredible to me, utterly brilliant and beyond comprehension, abstract and unnaturalistic, spinning theatre on its axis into a strange new world. But I also felt privileged with knowledge and understanding: of the text beneath the images, of the arc of the show. I particularly enjoyed watching Chris: I hadn't yet seen him in his role as sound designer and he, too, was like a child, scampishly playing not just with a laptop crammed with effects and music but an array of toys and gadgets that cluttered his desk, from a mechanical bird in a cage to a Snoopy siren, clockwork teeth and a squeaky chipmunk. The richness of this piece – the plethora of sounds; Mervyn's swirl of images; all the odd props magicked up the designer, James Lewis (including a bit of a Rolls Royce's engine that he just happened to have stashed away at home); the multiple roles of the actors – was overwhelming.

I had to leave during the afternoon's dress rehearsal; entering the theatre three hours later with the rest of the audience I was struck by the peculiar feeling that I was no longer part of the group making the show. I was part of a new group now: the audience. What astonished me, watching the show in this new context, was how susceptible I was to that new group's responses. It was as though I, like everyone else, was watching the piece in a state of innocence. I shared their amusement, their wonder, their bewilderment: all that privileged knowledge melted away and I felt as unanchored as everyone else. I've never before felt so strenuously challenged to assess what it means to sit in an auditorium, how much I have to invest in a piece of theatre not only to appreciate it myself but to help others appreciate it.

What the Cendrars piece raised above all – and this issue dominated the company's post-show discussion the following morning – is a question about the extent to which audiences expect to “understand” a piece of theatre. I've spent some of the time since the Cendrars' show listening to Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest, an album that passed me by on its release and whose popularity was initially incomprehensible to me. (I had a breakthrough on the day I played it on the decent stereo when alone in the house: turns out you can appreciate music much more when kids aren't in the room and when you're not in a car. Who knew?) That incomprehension had nothing to do with not understanding the songs on Veckatimest and everything to do with not feeling moved by them, not finding them beautiful. Music is something I experience emotionally and sensually: that isn't to say that it can't also be intellectually satisfying, but the demand I place on it is different.

Chris's Cendrars piece invites us to experience theatre emotionally and sensually, too: to accept that we might not understand what we're watching at any given moment, but that there is a rigorous thinking behind it and, having made that intellectual peace, allow ourselves to revel in the beauty of what we see. Not just that: allow ourselves to be swept along by it, absorbed by it, to feel as much within as without this disorienting yet magical world. I had joined Chris's world in the rehearsal room but once within the audience I felt I could join it only as far as those around me did.

This was just a 25-minute show – as Chris put it, an EP taster for the album to (it's hoped) come – and what emerged from the performance was that many in the audience wanted more anchoring, more information to guide them. What might this involve? Perhaps making the character of Cendrars clearer, or clarifying the relationships between the sound, image, light and performance desks. Perhaps a shift in the use of text: although the piece is packed with text, in this incarnation it was all recorded, and perhaps live spoken dialogue would allow the audience to feel more connected with the piece.

But perhaps audiences need to work on themselves a little, too. They need to arrive knowing that it's OK not to understand this piece of theatre in conventional terms, that it's OK simply to enjoy the spaces that open up between what they see and hear and think. Cendrars plunges us into the deepest mysteries of the world: to present that mystery with too much clarity might well defeat the point.

vanity project 4: mike bartlett

Every play Mike Bartlett writes is powered by the same question: “What is the nature of this event? Because these days,” says the 30-year-old, “it can be anything. You should open the door of the theatre and you should say: what is this?”

That's how audiences of My Child, his 2007 debut at the Royal Court, felt when they entered a scaled-up model of a London Underground train carriage, and witnessed a vicious tug-of-war between a father, his ex-wife and her boyfriend over a heartless nine-year-old boy. Two years later came Cock, an excoriating examination of a gay relationship under stress, staged within a cock-fighting ring. Earthquakes in London, his debut for the National Theatre last year, was more radical still: the entire Cottesloe was gutted and filled by an acid-orange catwalk, across which Bartlett's ambitious story, which dealt with the impact of climate change, snaked from 1965 to 2525.

The scene directions for his new play for the National, 13, indicate that it should be “performed with a circle”. Bartlett's meaning is both literal – the Olivier's stage is round – and metaphorical: the play is a ritual (his word), exploring religious belief and moral structures, and how they inform our decision-making day-to-day. He started writing it in January, as he began a year-long residency at the National, hoping to answer another question: “How do you put a properly contemporary play about late-2011 on the Olivier stage, considering it's normally programmed long in advance?” An extended rehearsal period has allowed him to respond to the news happening around him – including the riots over the summer, which, he says, not only affected his own writing but will colour his audiences' responses. In one scene, he depicts a pensioner smashing a bank window: “When you've watched the riots,” he argues, “that image changes from a moment of outrageous magical realism to being something we saw last week on the telly.”

Not that Bartlett has a problem with putting magic or fantasy on stage. “We have been constrained by social realism, the worry that in order to tackle a subject seriously the form has to be realistic. But our life is full of weirdness and imagination.” Where Earthquakes spiralled into a crystalline future, the plot of 13 is built upon coincidences and bad dreams, finding equal inspiration in the films of David Lynch and the more surreal passages of the Bible.

He takes issue with the suggestion that the National has brought out the old-fashioned state-of-the-nation playwright in him. “That implies my only focus is to dissect the state of us politically and socially. But state of my emotions, or state of my psychology, are as important to me.” He feels more concerned with investigating, at a personal level, “the play between modern morals and traditional morals, and one generation versus another, and lessons of the past, how relevant they are now and whether they still apply”.

Love Love Love, which toured the UK earlier this year, embodied that conflict within a single family – and found both generations equally at fault in their thoughtless dealings with each other. Bartlett doesn't favour one-sided argument in his plays: instead he presents a clash of extremes and the murky areas between them. The last thing he wants is to bolster the cliched idea that “all new writers at the National Theatre are going to be slightly woolly lefties. Increasingly subjects are more complicated than being left and right anyway.”

So he works hard to inhabit opposing points of view – and frequently ends up questioning his own beliefs. “In the process of writing 13, friends were asking if I was OK, because I was saying things about religion, or about intervening in other countries militarily, that I wouldn't normally spout over dinner,” he says. “In the moment of writing the play I genuinely changed what I thought.”

It helps that he's had a lifelong training in assessing how other people think. His father worked as a psychologist, “so I grew up with him saying: 'Look how that person's behaving. Do you think there's a reason behind that?' So as a five-year-old you think: 'Oh, OK, people have brains and they make decisions and their decisions are affected partly by genetics and partly by...'.” Add the instruction of his “very moral” mother, a teacher and the daughter of a minister, and it's not surprising that Bartlett was “a bit right-on” in his university days. He says he's since learned not to take himself so seriously.

Whereas his earlier plays honed their argument with devastating precision, Bartlett's recent plays can feel messy – as reviewers of Earthquakes in London were quick to point out. The play is touring this autumn, and Bartlett took the opportunity to revisit his script. He's tweaked the final act to make it less convoluted: in the original production, one character fell into a coma, woke up in the future then returned to the past to die, resulting, Bartlett accepts, in “too many twists and turns”. But, he says, “I haven't made it shorter, I haven't tidied it up, because the gesture of the play was always 'too much'.” In other words, Earthquakes surveys the excess of our times by being excessive itself – and if it feels flawed as a result, Bartlett doesn't mind. “I don't want it to be the best version of a play,” he reasons. “I want it to be itself, and not to lose its distinctiveness.”

His great goal in the theatre is to achieve a “coherence of gesture”, whereby “the writing fits with the design, which fits with what the actors are doing. The play is just a starting point for collaboration.” He spent his teenage years in Abingdon, near Oxford (he describes it as “an old market town that's very nearly beautiful, only there's always something ruining it”), not writing but directing. At Leeds University, where he took a degree in English literature and theatre studies, he focused on devising, making “all sorts of weird shit theatre”. Is that weird-shit theatre, or weird, shit theatre? “Both, but mainly shit,” says Bartlett cheerfully. “We used lots of puppets and gauze and paint and the Smiths.” What it gave him, he says, was an invaluable knowledge not only of how a stage works, but of the possibilities of theatre – possibilities he continues to explore and expand today.

After graduating in 2002, he attempted to make his way as a director, but came unstuck while interviewing to join new writing companies including Out of Joint and Paines Plough. “You have to come in with a huge amount of charisma, which I didn't have,” he says. (It's a fair point: Bartlett is smart, forthright and friendly, but not exactly suave.) So he transferred his energy to writing – and with his first proper play, Not Talking, the same new writing companies suddenly found him an exciting prospect. The Royal Court invited him to join its young writer's programme, by the end of which Bartlett had three new pieces: a “social-realistic play about a kid in a school doing terrorist acts”, and “a magical-realist fantasy set on the island of Iona featuring Prince William”, both of which, perhaps unsurprisingly, were rejected by the theatre. The last, My Child, was staged – and Bartlett hasn't looked back.

He worries about being seen to be climbing a ladder: from the Royal Court's studio space to its main house, up to the Cottesloe and now the big one, the Olivier. “I'm not interested in that, and I don't want to feel like that's how it works,” he says. “I don't care more about 13 because it's in the Olivier than I did with Cock in a 100-seat studio. They both matter because it's still a person sat there watching your play. And the play has to be good enough, because there are a hundred other plays and writers out there who deserve to have their play on instead.”

vanity project 3: conor mcpherson

To say that playwright Conor McPherson is fascinated by the supernatural is something of an understatement. He's best known for his 1997 play The Weir, whose characters narrate a string of spooky stories featuring fairies, a ouija board and a mother haunted by her dead child. Before that he taunted reviewers with St Nicholas, about a debauched theatre critic who falls under the spell of vampires. No less a creature than the devil stalked the stage in his last play in London, 2006's The Seafarer. Since then he has made a film, The Eclipse, in which a widower who fears he's seeing ghosts falls in love with a writer of – you guessed it – ghost stories.

His latest play, The Veil, which he is directing at the National Theatre, pulses with paranormal activity: one character hears disembodied voices, another talks dreamily of meeting “a man who had mirrors where his eyes should be”, and a third unleashes chaos by conducting a séance. So far, so McPherson – except in most other respects, The Veil is unlike anything he has written before. For a start, it has five female characters, which is practically more than you'll find in the rest of his work for the stage put together. Plus it's a period piece, set in 1822, opening very precisely on the evening of Wednesday May 15 and ending in the afternoon on Friday 7 June.

An internet search on those dates doesn't bring up much information – which is why McPherson chose them. “I'm not a historical playwright, so I had stick it in somewhere, and I could get in there without any baggage,” he says, apologetically. “Also, it's just before photography, so we sort of know what it looks like, but not exactly. And you can argue with someone about what happened 100 years ago, but 200 years ago?”

It wasn't just canniness motivating this decision: it was a lack of confidence. When I last met McPherson, five years ago, he likened himself to a “nuclear reactor of anxiety”, and, at least where work is concerned, little seems to have changed on that score. He has been writing The Veil since 2008; in the year since the National committed to staging it, he hasn't stopped tweaking it. “It's a different time, a different way of speaking,” he explains. “It made me very wary.”

In his 20s, he thinks, he had a lot more bravado – but he was also prone to drown self-doubt in alcohol, refusing to accept that he had a problem until he was hospitalised with pancreatitis and almost died. That was 10 years ago; these days, he feels a greater sense of responsibility, and not just for himself. “As I get older – I turned 40 this year – I care so much more about the audience,” he says. “I really want them to have a positive experience.”

There was another compelling reason for setting The Veil in the 1820s: “Apparently it was very similar to now, in that there was a big economic crash following the Napoleonic wars,” says McPherson. “So a place like Ireland, which was very poor, was just on the floor.” Still resident in Dublin, where he was born and brought up, he was particularly sensitive to this modern resonance. “When I look at what's happened to Ireland in the past few years, I kind of think: where did this awful dysfunction in our psyche come from that we've destroyed our own country?” he rails. “On one level you can say it's just post-colonial corruption and mismanagement – but on another level it's like an echo of a long, violent trauma. For hundreds of years, to be Irish and Catholic meant your life was just shit. You were not allowed to go to school, you were not allowed to own land, you didn't have any rights. If people suddenly get that power back, of course they fuck it up.”

Witnessing his country's fall from economic grace has politicised McPherson – and made him rethink his own identity. “Before that I'd say: I was born in Ireland, but I'm not an Irish writer – I'm a writer. Now I realise, of course I'm an Irish writer.” He senses the same struggle in the work of James Joyce. “Joyce left Ireland, he wanted to have nothing to do with it. He wanted to become a citizen of the world, and to an extent he really achieved that – but he always just wrote about Dublin.” Even Beckett, he adds, who didn't set his work anywhere, still comes across as Irish. And if they couldn't escape their background, McPherson sighs, nobody can.

Joyce had a direct influence on the writing of The Veil, particularly his novel Finnegan's Wake, widely considered one of the least comprehensible ever written. “The premise of the book is that it's a family asleep and dreaming,” says McPherson. What appealed to him was Joyce's representation of “the timelessness of dreaming: years can go by in a dream, all time is eternity. I wanted to create a play in which time was somehow crashing in on itself, so that what people might think is an echo of the past is in fact a premonition of the future.”

McPherson found yet more inspiration in the German transcendental philosophy of the early 19th century. “It's so out there,” he beams. “The idea that people think that human beings are the part of God that is awakening and coming to know that he is God, it's crazy stuff. I knew I couldn't put it in a play because nobody would want to go and see it and it would be impossible to understand.” What he has done, however, is create one character who has published a book of transcendental philosophy – and another who wonders acidly why philosophers bother inventing these unreal worlds for themselves.

Although McPherson studied philosophy at university, his interests 20 years ago were “very dry, very logical”, and focused on ethics. These days, he's more inclined towards the mystical. Although he abandoned Catholicism as a teenager, he retains its appreciation for the mysteries of existence. Writers such as Richard Dawkins infuriate him: not because he doesn't agree with the idea that there's no religious God, or that religions cannot be proved, but because this argument extends to a lack of belief in the supernatural. “We don't know anything,” counters McPherson. “We're just tiny little mice trying to survive in an unknowable universe. We don't understand the nature of time or space, and the more science finds out about all of that, it only reveals more questions.” This is partly why he loves ghost stories: “They remind us of the limits of our rationality and our reason.”

There is mysticism, too, in McPherson's discussion of his future plans. The past few years have been mapped out with a variety of projects (filming The Eclipse; directing revivals of The Seafarer; writing and directing an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's The Birds in Dublin), and The Veil marks the end of that busy period. A lot of that time was also spent attempting to adopt a child with his wife of eight years, painter and composer Fionnuala Ni Chiosain: four months ago they were finally successful, and the couple now have a 20-month-old daughter from India. “I have a feeling that what's coming next is very different and I don't know what it is,” says McPherson. “It's the right time to move on.” In what way? “I don't know: to go into something else, deep into somewhere else,” comes the cryptic reply.

Alarm bells ring when he repeats: “It could be something entirely different.” Could The Veil be the last we see of McPherson on stage? Is the lure of studying obscure German philosophical theory too great? Time will tell. For now, McPherson is preoccupied by the demands of directing The Veil, and a desire to make the production the best it possibly can be, not just for his audience's sake, but because it's taking him away from his new daughter. “I want to be able to say: that was good, that was worth it. Now let's get on with our lives.”

vanity project 2: emily browning

Emily Browning spent the spring of 2011 ricocheting from one controversy to another. Sucker Punch, a hyperactive video game-influenced fantasia in which she starred as the scantily-clad Baby Doll, was released at the end of March to a barrage of dreadful reviews deriding its “rancid lubrications” (the Observer), “chaotic and nonsensical” plot (the Independent) and “pervasive ugliness” (the New York Times). Then in May, she went to Cannes for the premiere of Sleeping Beauty, to hear a ruffled audience greet the film with as many boos as muted cheers. Reviews were similarly divided, between those who thought its stately depiction of fetishistic prostitution amounted to “psychosexual twaddle” (the Hollywood Reporter), and those who found it a “strange, ensnaring achievement” (the Telegraph).

At least in the case of Sleeping Beauty, the response was much as the 22-year-old Australian expected. “I knew there was no way everyone was going to like it, and I'm OK with that,” she says. “I'd rather make an interesting film that gets people talking, that maybe some people hate, than make the kind of 'entertaining' film that everyone feels ambivalent about.”

The scorn in her voice as she says “entertaining” is acidic. She spent much of her childhood appearing in easy-going Australian telemovies, soaps and kids' programmes, and with her innocent doe eyes and rosebud mouth, she could quietly charm the world for years yet. But a tattoo under her arm reading “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching”, a quote from choreographer Martha Graham's manifesto for alternative artists, indicates where her heart lies: in “fearless work that challenges me”.

The challenge that made Sucker Punch appealing to her was physical: as someone who has “never been a particularly physical person”, she was hooked the moment director Zack Snyder told her she would have to do martial arts training. But she also liked the premise of the film: that Baby Doll, locked in an asylum by her abusive stepfather, dreams up an alternate reality in which she and her girl gang kick a whole lot of ass. Although she was disappointed by accusations that the film, far from communicating a feminist agenda, titillates its audience by slavering over a female cast dressed in skimpy Playboy outfits, she understood where they were coming from. The problem, she suggests carefully, lay in the difference between the script and the final edit: “Maybe because of interference from the studios, the female empowerment message that I was hoping to send got muddled up.”

There was less chance of being misled by the script for Sleeping Beauty: Julia Leigh, who wrote and directed it, is also a novelist, and Browning says her debut screenplay was not only beautifully written but extremely detailed. Which is just as well, because Browning's character, Lucy, spends a lot of the film naked, and a goodly portion drugged into a stupor while elderly men do with her body what they will, on the understanding that there will be “no penetration”. Even reading the script, says Browning, “made me uncomfortable. I read the first scene and had a panic attack – I had to leave it for an hour to catch my breath.”

It's easy to assume that it was the prostitution scenes that unsettled her, but Browning shrugs: “Nudity doesn't bother me. Mainstream media and society seem so frightened by sex, but it's really not that scary.” Apart from requesting that the set be closed while she was naked, she didn't seek to tone anything down: if anything, Sucker Punch left her feeling “so confident, so strong and mentally stable” that she felt able to make her encounters with the men even more intense, by remaining eerily still while they manipulated her body.

What really distressed her was penetration of a different kind. Lucy also earns money as a medical research guinea pig: we see her in an intimidating white lab having a probe pushed down her throat into her innards. “I'm really squeamish, and I did say if this tube has to be in my chest I might faint.” So a bit of trickery was used in the scene, although the gagging noises Browning makes, including a rather fruity burp, are real.

Other than that, she requested just one change to the script: that the bikini wax administered to Lucy left her with “some semblance of coverage”. In fact, this is one of her favourite scenes in the film: “I love that Lucy starts laughing, because the idea of getting a bikini wax is ridiculous. What we do to ourselves to look a certain way is crazy.”

It's these little details, Lucy's defiant self-possession, her disregard for the absurd trappings of female sexuality, that give the film a feminist undertone – and for Browning this was another of its attractions. She herself is a feminist, in favour of sex work and rights for sex workers, and argues that the sleeping beauty scenes are more concerned with “the sexuality of older people, which isn't visible in society” than with the exploitation of young women. To her mind, Lucy isn't exploited at all: “Obviously the fact that she's asleep means that she's objectified to some degree, but she is completely willing to submit control to others and see what happens. I don't think it's a healthy attitude for someone to have, but the film isn't about portraying a character who's going to be a role model for young girls. It's about the choices we make as humans, and the battle to find control while living in a society that wants to objectify you and commodify you.”

Control over her life is something Browning sought from a young age. Growing up just outside Melbourne, she was bullied at two primary schools before her parents moved her to a parent-run co-operative, where the 40 pupils spent their time not learning maths and English, but painting, going on nature camps and putting on plays. It was here that another parent, an actor, spotted her on stage and suggested that she audition for an upcoming telemovie, The Echo of Thunder. She was eight at the time, and says: “My parents were a bit freaked out – they're as far from stage parents as you could possibly get.” They're not even involved in the arts: her father is a computer systems analyst, and her mother owns and runs a cafe. Browning insisted they let her audition, and continued to insist. At 10, she wouldn't even allow her parents to accompany her on set.

She spent the next few years happily combining school and filming, until she won the part of Violet Baudelaire in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Adventures. She had to move to Los Angeles for nine months and: “I hated it. I was 15 and thought I was punk and that Hollywood was crap. I wanted to be back at school – I actually missed homework, which was weird – and be with my friends and do normal things.” When the film ended, she stopped acting for three years so that she could finish school in Australia.

Her return to work was tentative, so much so that she turned down the lead role in the Twilight movies, and it wasn't until Sucker Punch – the filming of which, at least, she thoroughly enjoyed – that she decided to commit to acting as a career. Chiefly what puts her off is the idea of fame, particularly the scrutiny of gossip media. Her ideal for the future is to “work pretty steadily, without ever getting to the point where I'm super-famous, but just to the point where I can make a film every two years and write and cook the rest of the time”. She's already writing, working on a couple of screenplays, but she finds it nerve-racking, and insists: “It will be 15 years before anyone sees them. And if I ever do get to the point where I make my first film, I definitely won't be in it.”

Sucker Punch transformed her life in other ways: it was while she was in LA doing press for the film that she met her boyfriend, Max Irons (son of Jeremy), and ended up moving to London. Although happy here, she exists “in a permanent state of homesickness”. She frets about her two teenage brothers, sending them lengthy emails instructing them not to follow other people but forge their own paths, and knows that deep down her parents wish “I was home doing a normal job”.

Her father is under strict instruction not to see Sleeping Beauty; her mother, aunts and grandmother all went to the premiere in Australia, however. What on earth did they make of it? Browning giggles: “Mum was hilarious. She said: 'I thought it was great, but I really don't want to see your tits again for a few years.'”

vanity project 1: this isle is full of noises

As an experiment, the next four posts will be the full versions of pieces I've written for the Guardian recently that had to be cut to fit the print page. Truth be told, I'm slightly appalled by my own vanity in republishing them here, but then, the whole concept of blogging still strikes me as impossibly vain, so what the hey. But it's not as simple as that: I don't labour under any illusions of being a great writer – and if I ever do get ideas above my station, the comments my work mostly attracts, that I sound as if I'm shacked up with the person I'm writing about, or that I make them sound staggeringly annoying, or that I've failed to take them to task, or that I've written a “puff piece”, are pretty effective at knocking that ego back down to size. Nor do I have the slightest belief that people would comment any differently if the longer versions of my pieces were published: more words just means more to criticise. What I do feel is that there's something depressingly arbitrary about the necessity to fit pieces around adverts: sometimes the axe is wielded, sometimes it isn't, and you never know when you're going to feel the blade. And since I'm here, in unlimited space, I might as well put these pieces out with limbs intact.


First up: the bonkers Nick-of-Franz-Ferdinand Tempest, which I never got around to seeing, because I got into a domestic muddle (I managed to miss Handspring's Woyzeck at the same time, what a ditz)...

As rehearsals for The Tempest go, the scene in Sausage Studios in east London is a little peculiar. There's hardly room to move between the amplifiers and stringed instruments – 15 guitars, a bouzouki and a double bass – that line one wall, and the keyboards stacked in towers two or three high along the other. Shakespeare specifies that Prospero's island is “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs”, but there isn't much sweet airiness about the indie-rock caterwaul being conjured up by the two performers.

But this is no ordinary Tempest, something that's reflected in its mouthful of a title. The Isle Is Full of Noises: The Tempest Puppet Music Show is a collaboration between German puppeteer Philipp Pleßmann and his old friend Nick McCarthy – guitarist with Franz Ferdinand. The pair met two decades ago in Bad Aibling, in Bavaria, where McCarthy grew up. “We did everything together: a lot of drugs, playing music, all those teenage experiences,” says McCarthy. An air of teenage mischief still clings to the pair: any time they mention Miranda's speech “I do not know one of my sex”, the word sex sets them sniggering.

It was Pleßmann's idea to turn The Tempest into a solo puppet show. While studying at the Ernst Busch drama school in Berlin seven years ago, he wrote an essay detailing how he planned to do it, although, he says: “When I read it now it's very funny, because I didn't do any of those things.” When he finally staged the first act of the play three years later, as part of his diploma course, he realised he wanted to set Shakespeare's text to music. So he travelled to Glasgow and spent five days with McCarthy working on a soundtrack.

Or rather, five nights – at the time, McCarthy was recording Franz Ferdinand's third album, 2009's Tonight. Listening to the plangent setting of Ariel's song Full Fathom Five, the clattering guitars backing Miranda's sex speech, and the propulsive keyboard riff behind Iris's call to the nymphs in the wedding scene, you can hear how Franz Ferdinand fed into the Tempest soundtrack. But the influence wasn't only one-sided: McCarthy was so pleased with the music he wrote for Caliban's “the isle is full of noises” speech that he played it to his band-mates and – with Pleßmann's approval and a tweaked lyric – the track became a song on Tonight, Dream Again.

Since then, McCarthy has been too preoccupied with other work to return to The Tempest. He spent two years touring Tonight with Franz Ferdinand; when the band went on hiatus for a year, he started focusing on the second album from Box Codax, the band he started with his wife, Manuela, and another friend from Germany, poet Alexander Ragnew. After meeting the artist Martin Creed through a mutual friend, he ended up producing an album for Creed, scheduled for release in the new year. “I've never produced anything else before but it workedLink out really well,” McCarthy says. “His music is really simple, just one note going up and then back down again, so that's the way you have to record it.” It's not just restlessness that drives him: it's also a recognition that Franz Ferdinand need external stimuli to remain fresh. “There's only a certain amount four people can do until it's just empty,” he says. “Then you need something else to come in.”

It was up to Pleßmann to flesh out the Tempest show, working with designer Hank Schmidt-in-der-Beek, who has created projected images for every corner of Prospero's island, and director Kalma Struen (who is also Pleßmann's partner). The trio have given several festival performances across continental Europe, but the showings at Wilton's Music Hall in London next week will be the first with McCarthy performing the music alongside Pleßmann. McCarthy will rove the stage, swapping between guitars, keyboards and drums (which he still can't play, more than a decade after telling Franz Ferdinand frontman Alex Kapranos that he would be the fledgling band's drummer). “Right from the beginning I said I don't want to be that theatre musician standing in the corner doing sound effects,” says McCarthy. “I hate that. I hate hiding behind my instrument, the way so many musicians do.”

Mccarthy admits the show is exposing. “We can improvise a bit, but with just the two of us doing it, if there's one wrong note you can really hear it.” Even so, the mood of the pair is light-hearted, especially as regards Shakespeare. “We didn't grow up here, so we didn't get that whole Shakespeare stuff at school, which must really mess a lot of people up,” he says. “We got it with the German writers.”

Faust,” chips in Pleßmann. “Every German student hates Faust.”

“We wanted to make The Tempest quite easily understandable,” continues McCarthy. “We're using Shakespeare and if we want to change it, we change it. We have no respect for it, I suppose.”

Everything about the show registers that lack of reverence. Sly in-jokes run through Pleßmann's text: his Prospero is adamant that German modernisations of Shakespeare are preferable to the original; at one point, the character Ferdinand nods to McCarthy's band's name. Musically, McCarthy says his reference points were big 1970s shows like Jesus Christ Superstar or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. As for the combination of music and puppets, Pleßmann says: “You see it in The Muppet Show – it works so good!”

In some respects, Pleßmann's puppets are just like the Muppets: their faces are slashed from ear to ear to create gaping mouths. But they are otherwise realistically human, with textured skin and googly eyes, which makes them look eerie to the point of terrifying. His main puppet, Prospero, has no body: Pleßmann can hold the head to one side and engage it in dialogue, or place it in front of his own face for one of Prospero's monologues. “It's like a very flexible mask,” he says. “It's much more interesting when the puppet can be free.”

He laughs uproariously when McCarthy tells him that one Glasgow newspaper has reported that the pair are working on a children's show: Pleßmann works primarily in adult theatre and doesn't find this suspicion of the form in Germany. McCarthy's tastes in puppetry are definitely adult: a few months ago he saw Complicite's Shun-kin at the Barbican and found it mesmerising. “The puppet in that was unbelievable: she was sado-masochistic so there were really weird sex scenes. I had bad dreams that night. But I think it's fascinating, that you can go that far with a puppet. You can show more with puppets than you can with actual actors.”

Friday, 14 October 2011

time for you to put yourself on

I've spent an unusual amount of time this past month at Sadler's Wells, which is a bit dangerous with an Actionettes show coming up (Night of the Shimmying Dead, October 29 at the Buffalo Bar – come!): I'm prone to feel frustrated by our myriad shortcomings as an amateur group anyway, and watching dance fills me with a painful yearning to over-reach my meagre capacities and push my body to do the unexpected and transcendent. I interviewed Emily Browning recently and tattooed under her arm are some words by Martha Graham, “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching”, culled from this stern yet tremblingly beautiful letter to Agnes de Mille. I'd never encountered the letter before, but oh God do I recognise the unrest, and I don't usually find it that blessed, either.

One of my favourite things about watching dance is trying to figure out what emotion or story is being communicated: I'm too much of a cheapskate to buy programmes, and maybe I prefer the thrill of the interpretative chase. At Tezuka, the impossibly sweet new piece by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, all the exposition you'd find in a programme was delivered from the stage: potted histories of Japan and the atomic fallout, of Osamu Tezuka's youth and politics, of the radicalism of manga and the philosophical import of his characters. For reviewers, most of whom were a bit sniffy about the show, this was one of its umpteen drawbacks, but I loved the earnest, burbling quality of these verbal interpolations, the fanboy flood of information. I loved, too, the way it shifted constantly: one moment it was childish, showing us a boy rolling around with excitement reading his manga book, or a paper robot-monster stomping up the stage; then darkly, erotically adult, especially in the grappling duet between a priest and a half-naked gamin; or serenely abstract, with groups of dancers weaving and curling in exquisite physicalisations of the Japanese script.

If Tezuka was all about inviting you to share an obsession, the Sylvie Guillem show 6000 Miles Away kept its audience somewhat at a distance. Or maybe I just needed to read the programme to understand the thinking behind the knife-sharp, cracklingly tense moves of the first piece, Rearray: without it, the duet felt impressive technically but emotionally cold. I preferred the other piece, Bye, which has Guillem bursting through a white doorway dressed like a frowzy 1950s librarian (one of my favourite looks), escaping to dance and enjoy herself while members of the family arrive one by one to peer at her quizzically. If I'd grasped that the piece is about the daily tug-of-war between self-fulfilment and social responsibility, between art and family commitments, I probably would have watched it through a blur of tears. As is was, I was more gently amused and moved.

The same struggle is explored in Quarantine's Entitled, an absorbingly odd show, playful yet painful. What it deals with, as Lyn points out in her brilliant review, is the chasm between what we think we want out of life and how we feel about what we have. We watch technicians set the stage up and dismantle it again without the “show” ever really happening. Because what is the show? What is it that makes all the humdrum architectural, organisational activity that life requires – the endless cooking of meals and washing of dishes, brushing of teeth and buttoning of coats, paying of bills and dealing with emails – feel worthwhile? There is an extraordinary moment when one of the dancers, Fiona Wright, steps forward and asks us directly: if I haven't had children, is my life worthwhile? I wanted to tell her that “children” are not a simplistic solution to doubt and anxiety and confusion, but a terrifyingly complicated amplification of that doubt and anxiety and confusion. But someone's mobile phone went off and broke the spell. And anyway, I had already done my bit of participation: I'd jumped on stage and tried to learn Sonia Hughes' brilliant routine to Jump to the Beat so I could teach it to the Ettes, once again failing to realise that what my mind wants and what my body can do are not the same thing.

For me, the answer to that worth question is making stuff, although I'm constantly frustrated by my inability to settle on what to make. In that sense, I felt a wistful twinge of jealousy of Akram Khan: if I could devote myself to one thing long enough to make something even a fraction as beautiful as Desh I'd be ecstatic. The piece deals with ethnicity, how we come to terms with who we are and what made us. In an early scene, Khan itches and quivers across the stage, tearing at his skin, trying to remove something embedded there. This is probably a misinterpretation – judging by reviews, he's attempting to negotiate the hustle and bustle of Dhaka – but it looked to me as though Khan was buffeted by and struggling against the Bangladesh that's lodged in his own body. We don't want our parents' country (in my case, Cyprus) itching at our bones; we don't want to deal with this other culture and language and folklore and national pride, all of which seem so alien to us. But that other homeland has been given to us in our genes and one day or another it will assert itself, seeping through our blood to erupt from our mouths and claim our fingers.

Scenes in which Khan argued with his father (whom Khan embodies, adorably, by painting eyes and mouth on to his own bald pate and balancing his forehead on his arm as a chin), then struggled to interest his own daughter in her heritage, felt so familiar to me. As a child I refused to learn Greek; since having children, I hear Greek words spilling out of me – far more with my son than with my daughter, which is frightening, as Cypriot women are dangerously soppy about their sons. Like my parents before me, I want my children to feel this foreignness inside them. I want to fill their heads with other words, with stories of Persephone and Demeter, Orpheus and Narcissus, Aphrodite and Arachne. There is an unspeakably beautiful sequence in Desh in which Khan, narrating a folk tale to his daughter, begins to inhabit it, digital images surrounding him with a forest of bristling trees and fluttering fireflies. If we have to turn into our parents, at least let's do it in a way that feels magical.

Most of the making I do, inevitably, happens in the kitchen, and it's here, too, that I connect most with my heritage. I can't communicate with my grandmother but I can cook like her: fasoulia, koubebkia, magarounia, kofte. A few years ago at my auntie's house in Greece, I tasted her home-made baklava for the first time and it was a revelation: crunchy, sticky, sweet but not sickly. I finally prised the recipe out of her and the two times I've made it myself it's been a small triumph. So here's my auntie Era's recipe, with a few wee tweaks of my own.

Auntie Era's baklava

I use a Pyrex dish, 30x22x5, for this: you take a knife to it, which is why I don't use a metal tin. Pre-heat the oven to 160 or thereabouts – it wants an hour in the oven to become golden, so use whatever temperature will allow it that length of cooking time

filo pastry – I use Jus-Rol, because it's all I can find in Sainsbury's and I'm not yet insane enough to make my own, and need about a packet and a half

butter – roughly 50g – melted

400g nuts – I use 200g pistachios and 200g almonds – roughly chopped

to which you add: 1tsp ground cinnamon; half tsp ground cloves; 2 level tbsp sugar; 1 tbsp dry breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs (I crush up two cream crackers, which seems to do the trick)

Brush some melted butter over the tin, then start layering the filo, brushing butter between each layer – I use about six sheets here. Sprinkle over half of the nuts mixture, then do another four filo-butter layers, sprinkle over the other half of the nuts mixture, then do another six or so filo-butter layers.

Now you have to cut the baklava diagonally, first in one direction, then the other, to make bite-sized diamond-shaped pieces – make sure the knife goes all the way to the bottom of the tin. Push a whole clove into each piece to hold the pastry in place. Sprinkle it all over with water, then bake it for an hour until golden brown.

15 minutes before it comes out of the oven, make the syrup: you need a glass (approx 250ml) of water, and the same glass of sugar, which you put in a saucepan with a stick of cinnamon, three cloves, the rind of half a lemon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Put it on a medium heat, stir it to dissolve the sugar then boil for at least five but more like 10 minutes.

The very second you pull the baklava out of the oven, pour the syrup over and listen to it sizzle. Leave the syrup to soak in for at least half an hour before tucking in. It will keep for a few days just with a tea-towel to cover it.

Incidentally, as long as you have suitable breadcrumbs/crackers, you can make this vegan by substituting the butter for Stork margarine – I've tried it and couldn't tell the difference.