Thursday, 28 April 2011

some glorious

I've been obsessed with Chris Goode for some years now, ever since seeing him perform Kiss of Life at the Edinburgh festival in – according to people who are better with dates than I am – 2002. Here was someone only a bit older than myself, on stage alone, shy and a bit bumbling, slowly weaving this beautiful, achingly sad story of a boy trying to commit suicide and the boy who saves him, how they fall in love and fall apart, using breath and the elements of the air as silver threads through the story, the whole thing homespun and gentle but intricately smart in its depiction of the fragility of human relationships, of the human mind, wearing its intelligence so lightly, so quietly moving it made me tremble.

In the years that followed I watched him dress up as a Morris dancer, lie on the floor in a friend's flat and outline his body in salt, deliver passages of internet gibberish with as much heartfelt emotion as sheets of poetry, and scatter jelly babies over my front garden, marvelling each time. The show of his I've seen most recently, The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, had me in tears for a lot of its running time: Wound Man is the embodiment of a medieval illustration of a man embedded with daggers and swords; Shirley his sidekick, a lost teenager grieving for the older brother he worshipped, doggedly in love with the most handsome boy in school; together they seek out scenes of danger and disaster, arriving too late to “save” anyone, helping people by drawing out their pain and sorrow, because when hurt and frightened people gaze at Wound Man, they see someone who looks exactly how they feel.

Chris's blog is excellent, too: I would hazard a guess that a lot of it is written after midnight; there is that quality of while-the-city-dreams to his writing, a moonlit exuberance. In ways that might possibly embarrass him, I get a lot of sustenance from it: his New Year's Eve post felt like a call to arms – to link arms, that is; a manifesto for a new theatre but also much more than that, a new way of living with each other, talking to each other, reshaping the world together. “What would it feel like to not be afraid any more?” he asked. I've been trying ever since to find out.

Lately I've started using his blog as an arts guide. I bought Jill Johnston's book Admission Accomplished after reading about it in that NYE post, and had one of those moments when an elusive mental jigsaw piece slots into place, when you finally meet someone for whom you've been waiting for years. Words tumble from her apparently in free-form torrents, but always with an intention and purpose that are absolute, politically exhilarating (she was a lesbian feminist writing in the 1970s, how couldn't she be), and inspiring: my burgeoning intention to return to fanzine-writing, albeit for the interweb age, couldn't remain a daydream after that. What he wrote about the folk singer Sam Amidon in the same post so intrigued me that I scoured the music listings week after week until finally getting to see his gig at the Vortex, which was extraordinary: I reviewed it, and barely scratched the surface of what made him so fascinating to watch. Here's a random taster:

I don't remember – and haven't been able to find the post in which she was mentioned – what he wrote about the theatre-maker Rajni Shah, but the idea of her stayed in my memory persistently enough for me to book a ticket for Glorious at the Spill festival last week. For the first 30 minutes of the show, I was disappointed: Chris and I don't always see eye-to-eye (for me, our divergence is characterised by the fact that he loved Ontroerend Goed's Teenage Riot, which I loathed, and hates Little Bulb, whom I adore), and I thought we might not agree here, either. Glorious opens with Shah, encased in a stiff grey tube dress that spreads around her like a black sea (think Ursula the witch's outfit in The Little Mermaid, but less becoming), sombrely intoning songs about people and life and relationships, between text written and spoken by locals she met on Whitecross St a few months before. The texts were intermittently involving, the songs occasionally gleamed, but mostly it seemed humdrum, banal. Seats emptied during the interval and were not refilled.

But something magical happens in the second part. The stories are repeated, perhaps with a little more detail, perhaps continuing to a new chapter. And the songs are repeated, but this time with an orchestral backing, and Shah's voice no longer flat but warm, elegant, glowing. Her dress becomes a kind of Louise Bourgeois sculpture of moulded plastic and wrought metal and twisting fairy lights. Banality, the basic matter of our everyday lives – the breakfast parties, the arguments with our children, the shops on our streets, the political anxieties, the houses we've lived in for years, the cemeteries in which we'll end – is transformed and transcended. And in the third part text and songs are repeated again, slightly changed again, the register again shifted, the mood soft, gentle, soothing. One by one, everyone on the stage drifts off, and when it is empty we, the audience, are invited on. Those lives we were glimpsing? They were our lives. Those parties and arguments and anxieties and houses are ours.

There is a poem by William Blake – Auguries of Innocence – that I know of because, for reasons unfathomable to me now (a charity shop find of my mum's, I suppose), I had a copy of its first verse illuminated and framed and hanging on my bedroom wall when I was quite small. Looking at it now, I realise I've never read the whole thing. But I've carried its opening verse around with me for most of my life:

To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.

It came back to me watching Glorious, because that is what Shah shows us, and that is the gift she offers us. Don't be frightened of life, she reminds us. It's all we have.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

mind that scalpel

Another of the theatre pieces I've seen in recent weeks that, in its surreptitious way, made me want to get started here was Honest by DC Moore. I'd been kicking myself for not seeing The Empire while it was at the Royal Court, more so after seeing this. Honest is excoriating, from start to finish: in its attack on the inefficiency of most civil servants (which had my husband, a civil servant, squirming with laughter); in its desperation at the schisms in society, of class and upbringing and education; most of all, in its portrayal of Dave, exquisitely played by Trystan Gravelle, as a man generally secure in his own sense of, at the very least, equanimity, but momentarily shattered by the overwhelming and incalculable horror of our world.

There was one bit in particular that I keep coming back to, and that's his description of Stockwell and Clapham. I live between the two, and Moore's evaluation of the area is faultless. It's late, and Dave is running along Clapham Road from Stockwell station:

A bit coz I'm mad but also because it's Stockwell and really quite scary.

I'd forgotten that.

And after what seems like eight years of horrible estates on my right and lovely Victorian houses on my left, I get to Clapham.

Clapham High Street.

It's...

It's like.

Every vaguely posh graduate that you ever thought was the biggest prick you'd ever met in your life and they've all had a meeting – an AGM – and decided to live in the same area.

On the rare occasions when I find myself on Clapham High Street after children's bedtime, and sometimes even in the daytime, that's exactly how I feel. Although, as my mum so kindly pointed out, I live here, so that must make me one of them. How shallow the foundations for our sense of superiority.

As an aside, last night I randomly put on the new album by the Leisure Society and had a bit of a moment with this song:


Wednesday, 20 April 2011

everything's great when you're downtown

Thursday was one of those secret gifts of a day when the children are at nursery and I don't have a strict deadline, so I get to look at some art without distractions. To be fair, they're fairly accommodating: earlier in the week I dragged them to the Nancy Spero show at the Serpentine: tricky in terms of defining war and existentialism to a child, but a thrilling visual accompaniment to the Tune-Yards songs playing in my head. And last month we had a lot of fun together at the Pioneers of the Downtown Scene in the Barbican, where they took up camp in Gordon Matta-Clark's Open House, which, from their perspective, is like an overgrown and correctly scruffy doll's house, and an excellent venue for hide-and-seek.

One visit to the Downtown Scene isn't enough: not if you're as disorganised as me, and keep arriving just as Trisha Brown's dance piece Floor of the Forest is finishing. The re-created pieces that I have managed to see are quietly incredible: demanding yet playful, cleverly skewing perspectives, making the simplest human movement strange. For Walking on the Walls, the dancers stride along two walls in the gallery, leaping over the corner, carefully negotiating the crossing of paths, their ease and complicity with each other giving the whole thing a wonderful ordinariness, as though it were entirely normal to walk perpendicular to the rest of the world. Planes is even better: three dancers arrange themselves across a vertical board, on which images of New York taken from the air are projected. They look like people falling from a plane in the moments before pulling the parachute chord, suicides in freefall and splayed on the ground, astronauts calmly surveying the madness of earth; more abstractly, they reminded me of the geometric shapes formed in a kaleidoscope as it turns and turns.

What this show gives me most of all is an exhilarating sense of possibility: walking around it, I feel as though I could do anything. I love Laurie Anderson's subtly fierce, retaliatory photographs of men who catcalled her in the street, and the way Trisha Brown made the whole of New York, its streets and rooftops, even the outer walls of vertiginous apartment blocks, her dance floor. I love how they carved a space for themselves in the mire of downtown, how Gordon Matta-Clark made a restaurant which served just one meal at dinners, and photographed graffiti, and used an air rifle to shoot out the windows of a gallery in protest at the dire waste of the city's property. Were time unlimited, I would go to this show once a week, to absorb, to daydream, to refuel.

I did a bit of literal refuelling during the second visit, illicitly nibbling at a slice of cheesecake from a French patissier stationed in the market on nearby Whitecross St. I've become a bit obsessed with cheesecake of late, although this slice, exquisite as it was, reminded me why it's taken me years to overcome a prejudice against the stuff: it was so smooth and cloying, it was almost sickly. Over the past few weeks I've done a bit of experimenting with recipes, and have realised that the more cream cheese it contains, the smoother and more cloying it's going to be. As in so many things, Claudia Roden proves the doyenne of cheesecake: her recipe, in The Book of Jewish Food, is perfect, not least because it contains no cream cheese at all. As I'm constitutionally incapable of following recipes precisely, I tweaked it a bit when I made it, so here's my version. She says it's to serve 10-12, but I'm sure I could eat the whole thing on my own across three or four days if I really set my mind to it.

The perfect cheesecake

For the pastry base: 200g plain flour; 75g sugar; 100g butter, cut into pieces; one egg, lightly beaten. Mix sugar and flour, rub in butter, gently mix in the egg until it comes together in a soft dough. Wrap it and pop it in the fridge for 30 mins. Grease a 26cm springform tin, then line it with the pastry by pressing it in – it won't roll. Bake at 180/gas 4 for 30 minutes then leave to cool.

For the topping: 450g curd cheese; 200ml sour cream; 5 eggs, separated; 175g caster sugar; zest of one lemon; juice of half a lemon; splash of vanilla extract. Beat all the ingredients except the egg whites together until smooth. Beat the egg whites until stiff, then fold into the cheese mixture. Pour if over the cold pastry shell and bake at 150/gas 2 for an hour and a half. Leave it to cool in the oven with the door open. It sinks, like a souffle, but has a lovely, light, fluffy texture, and slips down much too easily.

Monday, 11 April 2011

on peut toujours ecrire

And so, to business, and the primary purpose of this blog; that is, aside from the very important rendering of recipes (lemon/olive oil/rosemary cake on its way) and general wittering of nonsense. I was, for a spell, almost a theatre critic; I'm still a member of the theatre section of the Critics' Circle, and the large chunk of me that daily fears being painted as the fraud I really am expects to be kicked out any minute now, due to my general lack of published reviews. For months and months I've had no problem with this state of affairs: writing theatre reviews is an agonising business, fraught with responsibility. Instead, I've kept myself busy previewing work, interviewing theatre-makers, now and then sneaking into rehearsal rooms to wonder at the alchemical processes occurring there.

And then came The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the Kneehigh production. I saw it in preview at the Curve in Leicester, in the run-up to writing this feature, and loved it. LOVED IT. I was fully prepared not to, as the film has been embedded in my heart for over a decade, and the snatch of it I heard on Front Row sounded awful, slaughtered by the two leads' bright but fake Broadway voices. But within minutes of the industrial curtain rising over a neon-lit Cherbourg of dolls' houses, wrought iron and 1950s kitsch, I was in tears, and remained so to the bittersweet end.


Knowing the film so well, I felt sharply tuned to Emma Rice's changes, the subtle interpretations she brought to bear on the story. I'd never thought of Mme Emery feeling love for Roland Cassard other than as a rich and cultured husband for her daughter; here, the very sight of him sweeps her off her feet. Conversely, Rice's fidelity to some of the more absurd sequences in the film is lovely, notably when a distraught Genevieve is told to eat some fruit and someone throws her a Granny Smith. And there are so many dinky things in the staging, from the toy car driving through Cherbourg in the opening scene to the embroidered tea-towels used to mark the passage of time, gently underscoring what a small and everyday story this is.

I knew the show wasn't perfect. Sheldon Harnick's English translation, written in the 1970s for a New York production that bombed, sounds prosaic in the wrong way: the whole point of Jacques Demy's script is that the language is mundane, and perhaps to French ears the original dialogue sounds flat and humdrum, but Harnick's translation slumps where a stage demands that it soar. Sometimes the singers were drowned by the band; sometimes the acoustic musicians were drowned by the synthesisers. An entire scene between Mme Emery and Cassard was undermined by the exhibitionism of a chintz armchair. Unlike a lot of reviewers, I had no problem with Aunt Elise being played by a man; it was unfortunate, however, that at one point scenery requirements forced the actor out of her wheelchair and nimbly down a flight of stairs.

But these felt like mere quibbles in the face of the overwhelming, heart-wrenching loveliness and pain and purity of the story. It's so simple: Guy and Genevieve adore each other, external events force them apart, they meet other people, learn a different love, less carefree, more mature. Romance gives way to disillusionment, and then to feelings that are quieter, sensible, tender rather than explosive. Watching it, I fall apart. Not because I'm a hopeless romantic, because this is a story that tells us romance is a game played by children not yet grown. It's because it so unflinchingly shows us the banality of life and everything that is demanded of us to see the course: patience, compromise, stillness, acceptance.

It's a mystery to me how anyone could not love The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, in any incarnation, but enough critics have slammed the stage show that its early closure, on May 21, has already been announced. (As an aside, three cheers for the West End Whingers and Webcowgirl for loving it too.) I know writing about it here won't make the blindest difference. But it did remind me how much I adore the theatre. And that if you want something, there's no point in waiting for other people's permission to get it. Or, as Mme Emery so sagely shrieks, on peut toujour ecrire, no matter what.

Friday, 8 April 2011

nothing but a woman's reason

Right now I'm supposed to be writing a review, of the brilliant Sam Amidon. In less than an hour, I have to collect the smalls from nursery. A copy of the new tune-yards album is glaring at me from the wreckage of my desk. Downstairs there is a pile of fabric waiting to be cut and patterns clamouring to be corrected. The laundry is spilling out of the basket. Emails are jostling for attention. I don't know what I'm cooking for dinner tonight. Big things, small things. Outside the sun is shining, it's one of those achingly beautiful spring days, when London beams, when the back streets are full of magnolias and the scent of mock orange, when you convince yourself that you won't see another grey sky until October, even as that infernal pessimist in your head grumbles that this is probably the only summer we'll get and you ought to make the most of it and not trap yourself behind the computer another moment longer. Reasons for writing a blog, right now, don't seem especially compelling. The days grow longer, time feels shorter. And here I am. The name, incidentally, came from this song by the Chills:

Silence boiling over, indeed.