Monday, 23 May 2011

hark the damesel, for she swooneth

I'm in the honeymoon phase with the new Wild Beasts album, that exquisite, slightly giddy period of feeling so consumed by a piece of music that I listen to it three or four times a day (despite everything else that clamours to be heard: just now that means the Seasick Steve album I'm reviewing; the Lia Ices album I'm befriending; the new Okkervil River; most particularly White Denim's D, which is so literally riveting that I had to lock it away after two listens, simply to be able to get on with my life). Even when Smother isn't playing, I feel the throb of its rhythms in my pulse, the seep of its melodies in my veins. On the morning I started writing this, I was snapped out of a dream by my daughter, and as I stumbled jangling into the day I realised that the dream's narrative and colours and torrid emotions all drew from the soundtrack still echoing in my head: End Come Too Soon.

Smother is an almost shockingly sensual album, its gossamer caresses insinuating their way from earlobe to collarbone, the crook of the arm, the small of the back. But it's a sensuality so searing, and so melancholy, that each time I listen I feel more bereft, skin prickling with an awareness of solitude.

So much of modern pop flaunts a brazen sexuality: Smother is clandestine. Some of what I wrote about Limbo, Panto on its release stands true for me now: there is a baroque wantonness to it, that makes me think of bodies heaving beneath the lacing of corsets, eyes flickering behind elaborate masques. But there is more subtlety here, a quality shadowy and private. Something of the geisha houses described in Junichiro Tanizaki's In Praise of Shadows, in which women painted their lips green and teeth black, the more perfectly to be immersed in the dark. Something of Cavafy's erotic visions, “when night comes with its own counsel”. Not for timid bodies, the lust of this heat.

Much as I loved Limbo, Panto, Smother is the album I've been waiting for Wild Beasts to make: the album in which they're in control of what they do, and not vice versa. Limbo, Panto is an obstreperous child: growling like a beast because it can, flaunting and theatrical, relishing its difference, the unleashing of strangeness. That exultant opening howl of Vigil for a Fuddy Duddy haunts me still. Such is the rawness and carnality that mesmerises the heroine in Angela Carter's story The Tiger's Bride.

And then there's Tom Fleming. I feel almost guilty admitting that most of my favourite Wild Beasts songs are those in which his voice is prominent.

But that isn't to say that the two voices are in opposition for me (as they are, say, to Alexis P, at least in his review of Two Dancers). One of the great fascinations of Wild Beasts as they've grown across the three albums is the increasingly fluid way that those apparently opposed voices are woven together, so that now, in Smother, one merges into the other, limbs entangling, hearts dissolving.

Despite the corporeal theatricality of Wild Beasts, I find it hard to think of the band as actual people. I avoid seeing photos of them, and when I do I feel faintly horrified by the sight of plaid shirts, polo-necks and oh, the indignity, beards and moustaches. (One of the Logan brothers summed it up for me, too, when he said: No beards.)

This is the one thing that consoles me for the fact that I'm yet to see them play live. All sorts of mishaps have prevented me: pregnancy, work, forgetfulness. I was in Cyprus when they played at Wilton's Music Hall recently, and cried with frustrated disappointment when those shows were announced, mere days after I'd booked the flights. And so I wait patiently for my relationship with them to be consummated. My eyes will be closed when it is.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

you should see how many bodies are hidden under there...

I've been trying to write this post for over two weeks, but things keep getting in the way: this piece about playing Shylock; the enticing peculiarity of the new Felice Brothers album; the course I've started at Morley College; the background reading I want to do for a new, terribly exciting project inspired by the writer/adventurer/surrealist/oddball Cendrars, with which I'm imminently very peripherally to be involved; the not inconsiderable anxiety (unfounded, as it turned out) of preparing to take my kids on my own on the nine-hour journey to my parents' house in Cyprus; the Douglas Sirks in my mum's DVD collection (oh, the wonder of Magnificent Obsession). I should just let it slide and get on with enthusing about Wild Beasts or the National's production of Rocket to the Moon. But I can't, because I've been too discombobulated by Andrew Haydon's review of the new Simon Stephens, Wastwater. I couldn't sleep after reading it, for re-examining the play and my response to it, and fretting over my impressionability, the difficulty I have maintaining my own opinions in the face of contradiction. Andrew's subtle evaluation of the play almost persuaded me that Wastwater is a work of genius, and stupid me for not realising it at the time of watching. But only almost.

I thought the first section, depicting a tender, awkward, fragile mother-son-or-are-they relationship, was staggeringly good, its poignancy delicately conveyed in Linda Bassett and Tom Sturridge's open-hearted performances. But the two sections after that, in which a policewoman reveals herself to an art teacher and a child trafficker delivers an Asian girl to a middle-aged man, I found much less involving or believable. This didn't trouble me overmuch, until I read Andrew's review. He described a lot of the thoughts that went through my head while watching the play: is this relationship about this? No, it's about that. Are we looking at this unpalatable truth? No, we're looking at that. But whereas I cheerfully dismissed a lot of them, Andrew located in their provocation and odiousness much of the play's complexity, slipperiness and brilliance.

That thesis, Andrew's appreciation of the tautness and scope of text and Katie Mitchell's production, his microscopic attention to every detail, are thrilling in their clarity and exactitude. I no less clearly recall finding Wastwater unsatisfying, and everything I've read and seen since has thrown up its ha'penny explanation why. To start with, there's the book I was reading on the tube that week, a collection of essays by Flannery O'Connor called Mystery and Manners. Her focus is prose-writing, specifically short stories, but what she says about the revelation of character – and it really sank in, because when O'Connor makes a key point, she makes it fiercely and repeatedly – feels salient.

“I often ask myself [this is O'Connor in 1962] what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies. This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity. … It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.”

O'Connor was Catholic, so the mystery she refers to relates chiefly to our relationship with God. But I lost God somewhere on the Brixton Road years ago, and so, at the risk of missing her point, what absorbs me here is the possibility for reflecting upon the profoundly bewildering mysteries of human relationships, with other humans, with time, with the culture we have made, with this planet we inhabit. These are precisely the mysteries with which Stephens is concerned – but he didn't quite engage me with his choice of gestures. The policewoman fills the hotel room with noise: TV, radio, a porn film on the internet. The art teacher slaps her around the face. The child trafficker pretends to shoot her customer. The man stares helplessly at the child he has bought. There is a coldness to all this, an iciness to Stephens' characters. Except in the first section, and that was the bit I most enjoyed.

Tangled up in this is a realisation that variations of these gestures are made in Dan Rebellato's Chekhov in Hell, which I watched the night after seeing Wastwater, and liked much more – except for the opening 30 minutes, which felt rather forced. Rebellato's reawakened Chekhov immerses himself in all the media noise, the violence and horror, of the modern world. And there are two key moments in the play, moments that made me shiver. In the first, a female TV producer recalls “every little compromise” she's made, the decisions – to quote Stephens – that stay with you, as though the consequences of them stay in your bones. She is talking faster and faster, uncontrollably revealing herself, and suddenly describes being in a stranger's flat at three in the morning, begging them to come on her face, because she feels that lost and that worthless that this seems the only way left to make anyone happy. In the second, Chekhov asks a young woman who works as a prostitute – trafficked from Ukraine – what went wrong with the world. Her reply is emotionless, chilling, almost incomprehensible because it's delivered in Russian. One phrase is repeated so often that its meaning becomes unmistakable. “Milliony smertyei”: millions die. Beneath the still surface of Wastwater lie countless lost bodies. The mud of the earth is mixed with blood.

It fascinates me that these plays are so convergent, for all their dissimilarity. And I wonder whether the key difference is that the characters making these gestures in Rebellato's play are simply more sympathetic: warm somehow, despite their brittle surfaces.

I thought I would write more here: about the passage in Dominic Dromgoole's book The Full Room, in which he compares the hope underscoring Chekhov's plays with the glib despair he sees in much modern theatre; about this assessment from another Flannery O'Connor essay, that a writer “may find in the end that instead of reflecting the image at the heart of things, he has only reflected our broken condition and, through it, the face of the devil we are possessed by”. But this post is already too long, and something I encountered earlier tonight suddenly made me recognise where my real discomfort lies. Without having met him, I like Simon Stephens enormously, and have a lot of respect for him – even more after reading this. I wanted so much from Wastwater: everything Andrew Haydon found in it. And no amount of time or tangled thinking seems adequately to explain why I felt let down.