Thursday, 30 June 2011

you say you want a revolution, well, you know...

I've wanted to see Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley for years; that the chance should finally come after a period of immersion in Clifford Odets felt apposite. If Odets' Group Theatre plays are songs of a certain socialist innocence, Wesker transposes those songs to a key of experience. One of Wesker's characters, Ada, finds the place that Odets longs for in Golden Boy – where poverty is no shame, where there's no war in the streets – but she finds it in a rural isolation with her husband. Pained, even poisoned, by a sense of betrayal, Ada's disillusionment with socialist endeavour makes her vitriolic: she decries the girls she works with as “lipsticked, giggling morons”, and the “splendid and heroic working class” men that her husband fought alongside in the Spanish civil war and second world war as animals with no sense of social conscience. She just doesn't care for them any more. Everyone in the theatre laughed at Ada's barbed fury, but I can't think why, unless it's only me who frequently shares such feelings of misanthropy.

Where Odets calls for free and equal love between two people, Wesker is interested in that care we can share more widely. Ada denounces her mother Sarah's “stupendous, egotistical audacity” for thinking she can care for society at large. But it's Sarah who is the most sympathetic character in the play: indomitable, enthusiastic, faintly annoying Sarah, always bustling and fussing, needling and nagging. Her final speeches in the play are extraordinary: I could feel her hand gripping my wrist and dragging me into kindness, conscientiousness and solicitude.

So I'm still a communist! Shoot me then! I'm a communist! I've always been one – since the time when all the world was a communist. … But it's different now. Now the people have forgotten. I sometimes think they're not worth fighting for because they forget so easily. You give them a few shillings in the bank and they can buy a television so they think it's all over, there's nothing more to be got, they don't have to think any more! Is that what you want? A world where people don't think any more?

Dominic Cooke's production at the Royal Court is odd, and not just because it didn't live up to that five star review from Michael Billington (I had the same problem catching up with Clybourne Park in the West End). A scene will be electrifying in its liveness – and then suddenly the plug gets pulled and it becomes inert, every word, every gesture, leaden with contrivance. The first instance of this came early for me: the opening scene, when the characters prepare to march against Mosley's blackshirts, was so vivid and exciting I wanted to climb on stage and grab a flag myself. But something goes wrong when the characters start naming comrades killed in Spain: it ought to be desperately moving, but the moment of contemplation and sorrow is so deliberate, forced even, that I ended up squirming at the staginess of it. The awful, awful, there-for-the-sake-of-argument scene later in the play between Sarah and Monty, now a greengrocer in Manchester doing very-well-for-himself-thank-you, was redeemed only by the fantasticness of Bessie's 1950s catalogue-girl outfit: from the top, ruffled curls and slick-backed ponytail; red lips; mint-green jumper; flared skirt with, naturally, poodles frolicking across it; patent leather heels. Sigh. (Secretly, of course, the thing I love most about seeing plays set in the early mid-20th century is the chance they give me for ogling frocks. I spent a lot of time at Rocket to the Moon trying to work out the construction of Belle's dresses with a view to copying them at home. Sarah isn't nearly so glamorous, but even her dour yellow jumper/brown tweed skirt combo from the first scene was covetable to me.)

I saw Chicken Soup on Tuesday and woke up on Wednesday with a hankering to listen to Grandaddy's The Sophtware Slump for the first time in ages. It wasn't until I heard myself yelling along to the chorus of The Crystal Lake – “I've got to get out of here, I've got to get out of here and find my place again, I've lost my place again” – that I knew why. It's an entire album about feeling out of kilter with the world and your times, searching for an alternative but not being sure that the alternative is a solution, feeling disappointed with people but horribly lonely without them. There are, of course, no answers. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't keep on fighting, keep on searching.

As a postscript: I appreciate that there is some irony in the fact that I've written this on a day when people across the country are striking in protest not only at specific Conservative policies but the very repugnance of Conservatism. I should be out there joining in; instead I'm at home, being self-indulgent. I'm doing what is in my heart, but is that enough?

Saturday, 25 June 2011

one from the heart

Every birthday I ever had I sat around. Now'sa time for standing. Poppa, I have to tell you – I don't like myself, past, present and future. Do you know there are men who have wonderful things from life? … You don't know what it means to sit around here and watch the months go ticking by! Do you think that's a life for a boy my age? Tomorrow's my birthday! I change my life! [Golden Boy]

I was in my early 20s when I saw my first Clifford Odets: just a bit older than Joe Bonaparte, the angry young hero of Golden Boy. I fell a little in love with Joe – how could I not? He's a prototype Jimmy Dean, a jazz-age juvenile delinquent. “You could build a city with his ambition to be somebody,” says the girl who silently adores him. “No,” replies his father, morosely: “burn down.”

Golden Boy is film noir transposed to the stage, populated by gangsters and philosophising Italians, girls who feel dead inside and men clinging to their last shred of hope. At the heart of it is Joe, the poor, bullied son of an immigrant, desperate to achieve something amid the arrogant skyscrapers and exhibitionist cars of New York. He's a musician, but “music is the great cheer-up in the language of all countries”, as Mr Bonaparte puts it, and so has become symptomatic for Joe of the spiritual weakness he senses in himself but can't articulate and doesn't know how to redress. “If music shot bullets I'd like it better,” he tells Lorna, his only solace. “Artists and people like that are freaks today. The world moves fast and they sit around like forgotten dopes.”

In the memorably ambitious fringe production I saw, Golden Boy was gut-wrenching to watch: Joe makes a string of wrong choices, glories in them, and in the most violent of circumstances discovers the magnitude of his mistakes. “I've been running around in circles,” he says, in a stunned moment of regret. The people who “conquer the world” are the ones who can stand tall and say: “I have myself; I am what I want to be!” His realisation leads to that moment that, I'm learning, eventually comes in all of Odets' 1930s/Group Theatre plays, when Odets' own romantic-idealist-socialist manifesto is voiced in a passionate blaze:

Somewhere there must be happy boys and girls who can teach us the way of life! We'll find some city where poverty's no shame – where music is no crime! – where there's no war in the streets – where a man is glad to be himself, to live and make his woman herself!

Outbursts like this look so sentimental on the page, but that's romantic, idealistic socialism for you: set against the impersonal, mechanistic, pragmatic brutality of capitalism it has a tendency to appear somewhat wan. Not to me, though: Odets envisages life as I want to live it, seeks a world I want my children to enter in the future. And his dreams aren't necessarily the stuff of fairy tales, something made clear in Rocket to the Moon. Look at the character names: Belle, Stark, Prince. Rocket, it struck me when watching it at the National recently, is a deliberate, feminist deconstruction of fairy-tale promises. In Odets' fable, Belle marries not a beast but a man called Stark, stark reality, and they could be happy together, if he only had more courage, the self-belief that Joe Bonaparte looks for. And his self-moulding heroine, Cleo Singer (once again, the centrality of art to Odets' vision), rejects the advances of Mr Prince, with his peacock armour and hollow promises of wealth and ease, in a fervent declaration:

If there's roads, I'll take them. I'll go up all those roads till I find what I want. I want a love that uses me, that needs me. Don't you think there's a world of joyful men and women? Must all men live afraid to laugh and sing? Can't we sing at work and love our work? It's getting late to play at life; I want to live it.

Love, love, love. No one can do anything alone. The American Dream is for the pioneer, the lonely hunter, the self-aggrandizing man. Odets rejects that: he argues that men and women must work together; that men cannot truly be themselves, cannot hope to realise their fullest potential, without women; that the strongest society has its foundations not in money but the bonds of love. There is a wonderful moment in Rocket when Frenchy wonders whether capitalism, the selfishness it engenders, the disparity it demands, makes that kind of love impossible:

Love is a beginning, a jumping-off place. It's like what heat is at the forge – makes the metal easy to handle and shape. But love and the grace to use it! To develop, expand it, variate it! … Who can do that today? … the free exercise of love, I figure, gets harder every day.

Rocket is unflinching in its examination of the difficulties of marriage: for all his idealism, Odets expects nothing to be easy. His portrait of a marriage in Awake and Sing! is excoriating: Bessie, nerves frayed, snapping constantly at everyone around her, undermining them, leeching their spirits; Myron shrivelled and ineffectual, offering no support to his wife, no guidance to his children; the two of them shrivelled not so much by poverty but by Bessie's insidious, destructive desire to keep up with the neighbours and maintain a facade of conventional respectability. We never see Cleo's mother in Rocket to the Moon, but I bet she's just like Bessie:

My mother's always trying to hold me back, not to have all the experiences I can. Those people think you can live on good advice. Don't you think life is to live all you can and experience everything? Isn't that the only way you can develop to be a real human being?

It takes a death for Bessie's children to find the courage to seize at life, to allow themselves not to feel guilty about going up their own roads; just as it takes a death for Joe to learn what he really wanted from the world. And this, maybe, is what I love most about Odets: his plays show you broken people in moments of shattering (but potentially transforming) self-discovery, so you can learn their lessons, change your life, without breaking too. Reading through the Methuen collected edition recently (not Paradise Lost, though: I'm patiently saving that thrill of discovery for when it must and shall be staged), one speech shone out at me. It's old Jacob, Bessie's beleaguered, kindly father in Awake and Sing!, taking the youth of Depression-strangled America by the scruff of the neck and giving them a shake:

Look on this failure and see for seventy years he talked, with good ideas, but only in the head. … This is why I tell you – DO! Do what is in your heart and you carry in yourself a revolution.

I'm tattooing those words on my own heart, so I never, ever forget.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

come on, chemicals

I feel nervous going into a rehearsal room. I can't bear for anyone to read two words of an album-review-in-progress; how then can I impose myself on a group of performers as they dredge their minds for words and gestures and struggle to sculpt them into meaningful shapes? Yet for the past few years I've taken every possible opportunity to witness theatre-pieces-in-progress, my curiosity and fascination with the work required to create a living, breathing, truth-full performance increasing each time. It's made me realise how little I know or understand about how theatre is made, and how much of that making is down to some mysterious and unfathomable force (I've called it alchemy before), both beyond and binding the individual personalities involved. The fact that I review theatre, comprehending so little, appals me.

My goal in a rehearsal room is to be as unobtrusive as possible: not easy, because, as more than one director has pointed out, I alter the temperature just by opening the door. I am the audience to come, even if my purpose is only to absorb, not to assess, certainly not to criticise. I'm quietly pleased when something happens regardless of my presence: when an actor picks up a guitar during the break and starts bashing out an indie song, or sinks into a nap while the director delivers their notes. It means the air has settled around me. I've melted into the wall.

There are, of course, theatre writers who are also makers (my admiration for Brian Logan is great), and I have, of course, of course, toyed with the idea of making something myself, but goodness knows where I'd find the confidence. Which brings me (back) to Chris Goode. Both in conversation with me and recently in his blog, he's puzzled over the following: almost everyone does something creative, whether it's writing the odd poem or baking cakes, painting or gardening, but almost no one makes a bit of theatre unless they're doing it professionally. Why is that? (As it happens, he's not the first person to raise this with me. A few years ago, when I was contemplating abandoning newspapers and trying to work in the theatre [the words frying pan and fire were muttered], I had a series of strange and wonderful conversations with directors and literary managers and writers I had encountered through work, and the piece of advice that struck me most was: make something in your kitchen. Invite a few friends. It will be a piece of theatre that wouldn't otherwise have existed and it will be yours.)

The reason Chris mentioned this to me wasn't because he wanted to encourage me to abandon all fear, but because he had a proposition. Would I like to spend five weeks in the rehearsal room with him, observing as he worked on three very different, very experimental projects and launched his new company? During a Devoted and Disgruntled session last year, I had talked at length about how spending a month with Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National had transformed my appreciation of the show: had made me more conscious of its myriad tiny details and inflections, more sympathetic to the compromises demanded by lack of time or money or resources; above all had deepened my understanding of what is a very difficult piece. It was an amazing experience, an immense privilege. And Chris, bless him, not only remembered my impassioned outburst on the subject but felt that this experience shouldn't be unique but general, that all the joy and playfulness and questioning and wrestling that happens in a rehearsal room shouldn't be hidden behind a locked door.

So here I am, on a train to Leeds for Open House, the five-day project he's doing at West Yorkshire Playhouse, where the rehearsal room is open not just to me but to anyone at all. The closer I get, the more astonished I am that he's doing this, the more humbled I am by the selflessness, the unselfconsciousness, of Chris and his cast. They're not just sharing a way of making work with people, a process. They're sharing a way of being open, honest, generous, trusting, fearless, in work and in relationships and in life.

Open House is the last of the three projects I've been watching; I'm still trying to fathom everything I've seen and thought and felt during the first two. I'll be writing more (much, much more) about the Cendrars piece, as it was genuinely extraordinary, a mind-expanding three weeks not only in terms of the kind of theatre Chris was setting out to make – a theatre of materials, textures and ideas – but in the way it made me reconsider my role as a member of the audience, my complicity with that audience, the minute ways in which I radiate a response to a piece and absorb the responses around me. Gradually, over the days I spent in the rehearsal room, I felt myself colluding with the company making the show; the moment I entered the theatre with the rest of the spectators, a new collusion began.

In between Cendrars and Leeds, I spent a few days at the National Theatre Studio watching Chris play around with a verbatim piece he hopes to make, based on interviews conducted by Karl James of The Dialogue Project with a group of primary-school-age children. I can't say I was immediately convinced by the thesis behind the piece: that we don't hear children, that adults smother children's voices in a treacle of sentimentality and cuteness. You want to come round my house, I thought, and see how possible it is to be unsentimental about children, how impossible it is to escape their voices. But I'd missed the point. Chris was really asking a question: what if we listened to children as though they were grown-ups? What would happen if we placed their words into the mouths of adults – adults not pretending to be children but retaining their adult voices? How would that affect the quality of our listening? What would we hear?

What I heard astonished me. The actors were sitting down, around a blank, conference-room-style table, the first time I listened to a read-through of the script, so there was nothing to distract from the words – a few character types that, in the time I wasn't in the room, the group had imposed on individual bits of dialogue, but no gestures. Although edited down, the texts had been transcribed with absolute fidelity from the original recordings of Karl's interviews with seven and nine-year-olds. I recognised in their speech a lot of uncomfortable, challenging things about myself, about adults, about children, particularly about the way adults bring up their children, the ideas we feed them and expectations we have of them and all the small and awful ways in which we fail to support them, fail to appreciate their courage. Here are some of the things I wrote in my notebook, during that initial read-through and the showing at the end of the week [explanations or expansions written today I've put in square brackets]:

we are all the child we were, it never goes away

patterns of behaviour start here [the girl who, when pissed off, goes upstairs and eats some sweets to feel better]

same dreams... [this relates not just to dreams/nightmares described by the children, but to a sensation that some of the incidents they describe, eg being lost, will linger in the subconscious and feed the language of dreaming in the future. In fact, another of my notes was, in far fewer words: everything that's being said could be spoken by an adult describing a dream]

moments when we feel like a child: intimidating work situations; with new friends/people we have a crush on

SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS... how crippling

difficulty finding the right word

IMPOSSIBILITY DEALING WITH EMOTIONS [fear, anger, sadness]

looking for escape – the secret bar etc [in the opening speech, a girl wishes there were somewhere she could go to sit and think other than the park, which is always busy because too many people know it's there]

fear makes us children again

flirting as a playground game

how crushing it is being an adult

all the impositions on children// what messages we give them, eg about money// responsibilities they assume themselves [this relates to two things: a chunk of text in which a group of children give their impressions of what financial responsibilities are entailed in being an adult, the need to earn money and hold down a job and support a family, and also to a conversation about a great-grandmother, how the child wanted to see more of her before she died but wasn't in a position to choose when that could happen, which struck me as appalling – they have the same feeling, but not the same freedom]

children playing adults – we don't allow them gravity //– extent to which we [adults] have to assume these things [responsibility, articulacy, selflessness, courage]

I have a fear of when my parents die

That last line is a direct quote from the script. But it might as well be me talking about my parents, or even my dad talking about his mum. There were a few more lines that I copied down, because they made me cry whenever they were spoken:

When you're a child, you don't really think... cos you like to live like a child.

Doesn't really seem you're just going to be an adult

like time flies by and you just want... to, like, stay as a child,

but you just enjoy things, the way it goes

*

Oh, I do have one question.

How does it feel like, being an adult, just in general?

Thoughts like these are very alive to me as I struggle to bring up two children, to comprehend myself as a parent, to not behave as or more childishly than them; as I remember the person I was (and thought I was) when I was 6, 16, 26; as I anticipate my children becoming adults; as I look at the future and feel choked by fear.

Something Chris and the actors discovered while putting the piece together, which Chris flagged up in his introduction to the showing, was how easy it is for actors to perform a child, and how it's almost harder to play adults. Maybe the dressing-up games, the pretending, doesn't stop for any of us – it's just that the stakes get higher, the consequences more frightening, and life stops feeling like a game. Many of Chris's original questions for the children dealt with courage: moments when they had to be brave, had to deal with loss, when they felt small, or guilt, or shame. Listening to the children talk about these things, I wasn't sure that courage is something that we learn that then remains constant in us: maybe it fluctuates, and flies away when we need it most.

I've been thinking about courage a lot while I've been in Leeds (I'm home now): the courage it takes to walk through a door, to join a party, to participate, to walk away. Open House was overwhelming; walking home beneath a copper sulphate sky my heart and brain were still effervescing from it. It's going to take me a while to digest it all, so for now, I'd like to end with another recipe. This is for sponge cake, Open House-style: I'm going to have to work very, very hard to find a better way to convey the flavour of the room. Oh, and here's a soundtrack for it, too.

Ingredients (serves 4):

1 line from an open letter variation

1 sung song

1 movement from the big dance

Stages of a smile

A microphone

2 medium performers

Some laughter or a touch

Jazz hands

Instructions:

1: Preheat a space to gas mark 6.

2: Place the line from an open letter variation and the sung song into a mixing bowl. Beat until smooth and creamy.

3: Beat the performers in a basin or cup and add the mixture a little at a time, with the movement from the big dance, keeping the same smooth and creamy consistency.

4: Add the stages of a smile and a microphone, mix for a few minutes.

5: Divide into two sponge tins, put into a moderately hot space and bake for 2-25 minutes (it is important that the space is well heated).

6: Put on a chair to cool.

7: When cool, put one upside down on a plate spread with a touch, you can also put fresh laughter in at this stage, put the other piece on top and dust with jazz hands.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

i bury my head in the browny-red earth

A while back I interviewed Fiona Shaw about playing Mother Courage, for a little something accompanying an essay by Tony Kushner in the Guardian. It was one of the more entertaining experiences of my working life, but also a troubling one, because she talked about Britain being at war in a matter-of-fact way that made me realise how little I thought about living in a country at war, if at all. I'm politically naive at the worst of times, but my casual ability to ignore Britain's military manoeuvrings suddenly mortified me, my thoughtlessness tantamount to a support of aggression, because it contained no protest against it.

I found myself thinking through this again on Sunday, somewhat unexpectedly in the midst of a Kitchen Revolution-style cooking session putting together a tray of moussaka, a plum crumble tart, two quiche bases, some caramelized onions, and three meals' worth of pasta sauce for the freezer, feats of domestic goddessry undermined by my failures as a parent that morning and, indeed, through the course of the long weekend. My soundtrack, on repeat, was PJ Harvey's Let England Shake. Harvey is one of those singers I've always admired, but at a slight remove: I have several of her albums, but never listen to them, not even Stories From the City, which I loved when reviewing. Let England Shake isn't nearly as friendly or accessible as I remember Stories being, but it's the album that has taken up residence beside the kitchen CD player, that compels me to play it again and again.

I'm slowly appreciating what makes it so fascinating to me: it's a folk album, its rhythms and language hewn from traditional English music, but it's a folk album that sounds absolutely of our times. Much of its modernity lies in the crafty way that Harvey weaves in quotations and samples from other songs. The most obvious – and the line I find myself unable to stop singing – is her twist on that mock-desperate line from Summertime Blues in The Words That Maketh Murder: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?”, which she sings at first with wry, eyes-narrowed irony, becoming more furious with every repetition. But there are so many others: on Sunday, for the first time, I caught Blood and Fire coursing through Written on the Forehead, and was startled not to have noticed it before. But this is subtle music, muted and ambiguous. I uncover something new in it each time I put it on, which is exactly what you want from an album.

What I particularly discovered on Sunday morning is that Let England Shake makes me feel like I live in a country at war, almost permanently at war; a country belligerent to its core. Harvey does this not by singing about new wars or modern wars, but by singing about wars fallen from living memory in a way that makes them fiercely present: much as Brecht did with Mother Courage. Harvey's imagery is devastating in its simplicity: she sings of “England and the grey, damp filthiness of ages”, of the country “weighted down with silent dead”, of how “our land is ploughed by tanks and marching feet”, and each line fills me with the horror of recognition. This has happened and it is happening and it will happen. On and on and on.

All that killing

Ancient history

Modern history

Vortex

Shipwreck

Even that of the Titanic I read about in the paper

So many associations images I can't get into my poem

Because I'm still such a really bad poet

Because the universe rushes over me

And I didn't bother to insure myself against train wreck

Because I don't know how to take it all the way

And I'm scared.

[Blaise Cendrars, from The Prose of the Trans-Siberian and Little Jeanne of France]

I admire Harvey, but I'm also intimidated by her. She released her first album when I was in my teens and struggling to shape my identity, using music as my mould. Riot grrrl emerged at the same time and was inspiring and confusing and absorbing to me. Harvey's refusal to associate herself with riot grrrl struck me as bizarre. Where was her sympathy, her solidarity, her feminist spirit? I didn't understand. Now I have more appreciation of her formidable self-possession. She was only a few years older than me, but she already knew how to take it all the way. Nearly two decades on, I still don't.

I was that 17-year-old riot grrrl again later that evening, watching the Drew Barrymore film Whip It. Along with Miss Velvelette Actionette, I've been a bit obsessed with roller derby ever since the 'Ettes performed a benefit gig with the London Rollergirls: we'd both love to join, but we're a bit, erm, wussy to subject ourselves to all that bruising (the unlikelihood of my even remaining upright in rollerskates is a moot point). It's not a great film – the plotting is fairly conventional and predictable – but the 17-year-old in me adored it. And there were a few scenes that made the grown-up me silently cheer: seeing a rollergirl with her son; that delicious slap that Bliss gives her errant ex-boyfriend; Babe Ruthless coming in second to Iron Maven; most of all, the exquisite moment when Bliss guesses that Juliette Lewis's character is 27 and Lewis's face softens before she snaps, “I'm 36.” Drew Barrymore, I salute you.

As for the plum crumble tart, you might have thought that a crumble with a pastry base might be overkill, but you'd be wrong. The pastry was crisp and plain, the crumble soft, with a hint of ground almond and cinnamon, the plums sour-sweet, and it all got eaten far too quickly. Thank goodness the Actionettes are dancing at Duckie this Saturday: all that go-going needs fuel, you know.