Thursday, 22 March 2012

one from the heart for the essex boy

It was the title, I think, that took me there. Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness. In my head it was the first play by David Eldridge I ever saw but, as ever, facts prove me wrong: I must have seen Festen at the Almeida first. Festen was terrific, but I saw that for Rufus Norris. Incomplete I saw because I wanted to make friends with Eldridge. Watching it, I did more than make friends: I became a little bit obsessed.

Incomplete is one of the plays that has defined my sense of what I want to see and feel in the theatre. It is a strange and tricky play, restless and slippery. The central character, Joey, has watched his mother die, is at odds with his father (has been all his life?); he's facing up to the commitment of marriage, battling a sense of worthlessness with volunteer work. And then Trevor, the teenage boy he is mentoring/reading with, dies, stabbed by some other children, bullies who wanted his camera. Senseless, pointless, materialistic violence. And Joey, who has been teetering on the edge, finally falls apart. But we aren't really told any of this. Eldridge weaves it into the torn and shredded fabric of the play. Joey is on stage all the time; other characters flash in and out of view, but it's hard to tell what's “real”, what's troubled, damaged memory. At any point, Trevor could be alive or dead. I can still feel the shivering excitement of watching all this unfold, the electric rush of piecing Joey together. Eldridge didn't just tell us about someone having a mental breakdown: he created that breakdown on stage, absorbing us in the experience.

Since then I've tried to see everything of Eldridge's that I can. But nothing ever matched the wonder and exhilaration of that “first” time. I'm more usually like this with bands, Pavement being the archetype: Slanted and Enchanted was everything to me, and it took about a decade before I would allow myself even to think that its follow-up, Crooked Rain, contained some lovely songs; anything beyond that, I find too upsettingly conventional to listen to. I'm not so extreme about Eldridge, but it's a similar thought process. Incomplete feels like the anomaly in his discography, the one great experiment. Of course, that's not at all fair: Under the Blue Sky, which I caught up with when it played, beautifully if a little glossily, in the West End in 2008, is brilliantly clever in structure, and who else would write a musical about Essex market boys, white van and all, for the main stage at the National? But nothing has held the challenge of Incomplete, the brain-fizzing demand.

I interviewed David in 2006, in the run-up to Market Boy, and have just raked through the transcript looking for something that I now realise he must have said off-tape: I remember telling him how much I'd loved Incomplete, and I'm sure he told me that it was a rather bruising experience, because the reviews were only middling (I've just found an extremely positive one, though, by Charlie Spencer: as ever, his empathy for the damaged runs deep). Did it put him off writing in such an oblique and elliptical way? I don't know, but when I watched The Knot of the Heart I found myself wondering if Eldridge and I were reaching a parting of the ways. My immense respect for Charlie Spencer's judgment in matters of addiction – he thought Knot was terrific – makes me question my response to this play, but I watched it in a knot of fury and frustration. Where Incomplete showed, Knot tells; rather than embedding its audience in a mental and emotional experience, Knot allows us to sit back and watch. When the nice middle-class audience around me tittered complacently at the joke about the nice middle-class mother scoring drugs for her daughter in a cafe in Islington, the play lost me completely. Knot is a well-crafted piece of writing, I'm sure, but the characters felt emphatically contrived to me, not felt, not true. Knot came from a place of art, not heart, and that's what I hated about it.

Although the good reviews (from reputable sources) got me excited, I felt nervous walking into In Basildon: on top of my problems with Knot, I've had mixed feelings about most of the shows I've seen on the Royal Court main stage in the past year. Sure enough, I found the gimmicky staging infuriating: the RC website gave no indication that my £20 seats would be in any way restricted in view, and yet huge chunks of the action were hidden from my husband, sitting at the end of aisle B. But the play! Oh, what an exquisite delight this play is. When the lights went up for the interval I was shocked: but it's only been playing for 20 minutes! In fact an hour had passed, whizzed by in a joy of perfectly formed characters, terrible jokes (“we used to call her Kronenbourg: she looks 16 from the back and 64 from the front”: SHOCKING!!! But funny), intense and contradictory emotion. There is a blip in the second half, when Tom, the middle-class boy with a private education, tries to take his girlfriend's family to task for their conservatism and self-interest, and it feels like a Today programme debate, but I even forgave it that, because every other word was so alive and real. Thinking back on it in the days afterwards, I realised it was quite a lot like The Slap – I don't normally read books on the bestseller list (you bet I'm too snobbish), but I'm really glad I read this, because it was provocative in just the right way. And the best thing about The Slap is that it's an intensely political novel, not because it tub-thumps, but because Christos Tsiolkas embeds his arguments about Australian identity and the education system and modern parenting and liberalism and masculinity and multiculturalism and the riven heart of the immigrant into the passing thoughts and everyday speech of his characters. The personal is political, profoundly so. That Tory v Labour debate instigated by Tom is the least satisfying bit of In Basildon because it feels staged, whereas the arguments about housing, work, social responsibility, charity, that emerge elsewhere in the play do so in the course of general family chat. They're not imposed on the characters: they come from within.

Just as form mirrored content in Incomplete, the disintegration of the mind reflected in the disintegration of the play's structure, so form satisfyingly mirrors content in Basildon. The play is conventional because its characters are; its four acts are as monolithic as the two feuding sisters, Maureen and Doreen, and the ancient grudge between them. I adored those two women: for their selfishness, their craftiness, their immensity. How I wish we could see more women like them on stage, in the cinema, anywhere in the media, presented with such care, so little judgment. And of course, of course, they reminded me so much of my own mum, in their fierceness and protectiveness – and their weakness. She did a lot of her growing up in Romford, too. I really, really want this play to transfer to the West End, if only so I can take my mum to see it next time she visits. I can't remember the last time I thought of a play, “My mum would love this”, and it felt like such a good and happy thing.

So many family resonances. My mum doesn't speak to her eldest and younger sisters, hasn't for years; it wasn't only money that poisoned those relationships, but it played its part. And how inexorable the enmity of family: I've tried to stop that bitterness souring my relationships with my cousins, but my feeble resistance has been mostly futile. So much friction, too, between me and my brother: I went to university, he didn't; I got all the opportunities to move up from the working class to the middle class, he didn't. At least, that's how he sees it. When Barry's wife Jackie lays into Shelley – and while I'm not precisely Shelley, there are definitely similarities – I couldn't stop myself squirming. My sister-in-law hasn't yet told me that I'm a stuck-up cunt, waltzing about the place like my shit don't stink, but it's there, an unspoken tension, between us. And when fists started flying, I was reminded, deliciously (because it is rather delicious, now it's more than two decades in the past) of the spate of family weddings in the 1980s that ended in punch-ups. God only knows what was happening there. (And no, I didn't love Basildon more than Knot because it reminded me of my own family: we've got the drugs and maternal self-delusion, too.)

In Basildon has made me besotted with David Eldridge again. For years, I've realised, I've been waiting for him to repeat Incomplete. I've let that foolishness go now. Instead, I've reminded myself how lucky I am: to be his contemporary, to be able to travel these roads at the same time as him. A bumpy ride, but a thrilling one.

Friday, 9 March 2012

a devotional

In the six years since I started going to Devoted and Disgruntled, my life has totally changed. Turned upside-down. In January 2006, I was working 11- or 12-hour days as deputy arts editor for the Guardian. I was having fascinating conversations with playwrights and other theatre-makers, smart and passionate and fierce people who wrote smart and passionate and stimulating copy, from whom I learned how to be a better editor and writer. What I wasn't doing, because when you work those hours you don't have a lot of time to yourself, was seeing much theatre, or doing much writing, either about theatre or anything else.

The prospect of D&D1 was exciting but daunting: would I fit in? As I've mentioned elsewhere, I nearly didn't go: if it hadn't been for my husband's cajolement, I would gladly have wasted the ticket price not to have my insecurities taxed. But D&D1 was brilliant. The discussions taking place – on women in theatre, working-class theatre, the role of critics, audiences, the Arts Council – were lively and inquiring. And although, as a critic, I was in a tiny minority, I didn't feel out of place, not least because several people told me directly how important it felt to them that someone from the mainstream media was present, interested and involved.

Seven months after D&D1, I left the Guardian desk job and became one of their writers. Seven months after that, I had my first child. Simultaneously, I was faced with two monumental questions: what kind of writer do I want to be? And what kind of mother do I want to be? (In case I haven't said this before, motherhood, or, to be more specific, the raising of children, hasn't come “naturally” to me. It requires constant attention, self-interrogation and searching, and is staggeringly hard work.) Unfortunately, child-bearing had such a devastating effect on my mental capacity – I have two kids, and with each one I could feel the brain cells dying away – that discovering answers to these questions, which, from a political standpoint at least, are proving to be not dissimilar, has been an agonisingly slow process.

My experiences at D&D are part of that process. There were years when I didn't go, or left early, because I didn't feel I could be away from the family for that long. After D&Ds 2 and 4, I felt anxious that the same discussions were happening year on year, the same paths of argument were being followed, only to end at the same brick walls. I had to remind myself that new people were coming to D&D each year, and change takes a long time to happen. Not least within myself.

This year, D&D7, is the first year I sensed genuine, exciting change. Some of that was evident in the room itself, primarily in the presence of children. Babies being breastfed. Babies in pushchairs. Children clustered in a makeshift creche, drawing, reading, passing the time. It has never once occurred to me to bring either of my children along. Admittedly, I haven't wanted to: I like to delude myself that it's possible, even preferable, to keep my work self and my mother self separate. But I wonder if I might have felt differently if babies and children had always been so present.

The difficulty of integrating motherhood and theatre work came up, as it always does, in the Women on Top session, this year called by producer Vicky Graham. Two positive examples were cited: Vicky Featherstone, who runs National Theatre of Scotland, temporarily moved her kids to a school in the Orkneys when she had to work there for three weeks. And Stella Duffy has adopted Open Space practice in her rehearsal rooms, creating an atmosphere of flexibility in which children are welcome, not shunned. Only two examples – but what brilliant examples. Over the years, I've heard more: the woman who now runs the BFI once told me that she would take her babies to meetings with her, because she was a single mum and had no choice; two decades on, you look at her executive team at the BFI and it's split 50/50 male/female. Earlier tonight I read this lovely piece by Third Angel's Hilary Foster on how the company integrated parenthood and theatre; Sam Butler of Fevered Sleep told me a similar story when I interviewed them for the acutely pitched On Ageing. Occasionally I'll even admit to creating my own examples: I've taken one baby or other with me to interviews, done various bits of Guardian writing with them playing beside my desk. Year after year at D&D, women have fretted and mourned that the biggest problem they face is in continuing work after becoming mothers. But it's happening, we're making it work, we're building new models. Maybe I'm just naive, but the gradual accruing of evidence for that fills me with hope.

I've been calling myself a feminist for almost 20 years now, and yet – like so many women? – I remain my own worst enemy. What troubles me is the ease with which my self-criticism/self-deprecation translates into a belief that I'm stupid/incapable/unworthy and so forth; and my tendency to expend energy in conforming to society, rather than the infinitely more difficult task of forging the new. At the D&D session, I found a route towards addressing that enemy within.

What set me off was Rebecca Atkinson-Lord of Ovalhouse saying: “I don't want to be a woman director, I just want to be a director.” Time and again I've heard women say that they don't want to be described as, appreciated as, women: not “woman writer” but simply “writer”; not “woman artist” but simply “artist”. As a teenager, assimilating the punk feminism of riot grrrl, I remember feeling really flummoxed by this paradox: on the one hand I wholly sympathised with the bold and strong and challenging women, like PJ Harvey or Kim Deal, who found the idea of talking about “women in rock”, and the imposition upon them of a feminine identity, both tedious and pointless; on the other, this felt to me like an unspoken rejection of feminism and by implication women, one I found not entirely comprehensible. As a music writer, I still grapple with this: when reviewing the Warpaint album, it irritated me that every single review called attention to the fact that they were all women, and I determined that I wouldn't, because I couldn't see what difference it made (when I saw them live, the difference became exhilaratingly clear to me, but to explain that would require reference to Helene Cixous, which makes me feel a bit fretty).

But when Rebecca said, “I don't want to be a woman director”, something in me went snap. Why not? Why shouldn't I want my female identity acknowledged? Why should women effectively desire to be ungendered? Why don't we want to shout about our difference from masculinity, from masculine norms? I know why: because embedded in that phrase “woman xxx” is a silent (only a). She's only a woman writer: she's not as good as a man, not as good as a writer who doesn't have to think about his gender, because it is the dominant one. She writes only about what is relevant to women, not to people. She can reveal to us only the female condition, not speak of and for the whole of humanity.

A few years ago, when researching a piece about black theatre in Britain, I went to a discussion hosted by Talawa at the Young Vic. Kwame Kwei-Armah was on the panel and used a phrase that struck me then and now as both useful and brilliant: as a writer, he said, I see the world “through my cultural lens”. I remember being utterly appalled when David Lan, who was chairing the panel, said that to write through a cultural lens was not to write universally. Surely no one has a “universal” viewpoint? Michael Frayn, in the introduction to his first collection of plays, expresses this point perfectly. Semi-apologising that his plays have the same dilemma as their central theme, he writes that it is: “the theme of philosophy, the central puzzle at the heart of all our speculations upon epistemology and perception, upon free will and determinism, upon the value-system in ethics and aesthetics, upon the nature of mathematics and God and language; it is the central puzzle of life. The dilemma is this: the world plainly exists independently of us – and yet it equally plainly exists only through our consciousness of it. We are circumstantial specks, insignificant local anomalies, amidst the vast structured fabric of the objective universe. And yet that universe has vastness only in relation to ourselves and the things around us – has structure only in so far as we give it expression in our perception and language – has objective form only in so far as we conceive it from our single standpoint in space and time.”

There is no such thing as a “universal” view of life: only a multitude of cultural lenses through which human existence is viewed. And if women keep stripping the female element from their cultural lens, refusing to emphasise and celebrate its woman-ness, I'm not sure that silent (only a) will ever be deleted.

There is a small irony that my thinking on this rests on the arguments of a black male, and a white male whose working-class father smoothed his son's passage to the upper-middle-class intelligentsia. So let's have some nurturing words from Adrienne Rich to redress the balance: “The most notable fact that culture imprints on women is the sense of our limits. The most important thing one woman can do for another is to illuminate and expand her sense of actual possibilities. … For centuries daughters have been strengthened and energized by nonbiological mothers [or: spirit-sisters], who have combined a care for the practical values of survival with an incitement towards further horizons, a compassion for vulnerability with an insistence on our buried strengths. It is this that has allowed us to survive...”

The Women on Top discussion took place on Saturday afternoon, but I sensed before then a change itching in my bones. I woke up that morning knowing, for the first time, that if I didn't call a session I wouldn't forgive myself. Even so, it took me 20 squirming minutes to find the courage to enter the circle. Even so, it took me five protracted minutes to find the courage to write the name of my session on a piece of paper. Its title, I guess, was my incitement to further horizons: What new dialogue can we set up between people who write about theatre and people who make it?

At every D&D so far, I've attended a session on the subject of theatre critics, agonising over star ratings, the homogeneous pool of critics, the lack of adventure in mainstream theatre coverage. These have all been important conversations, allowing people to share grievances and imagine the critical landscape they would like to inhabit, but they have also been impossible conversations, because they have demanded a change in mainstream media culture that no one attending D&D is in a position to effect. Setting up my session, I wrote its title on one sheet of paper, and on another wrote a list of subjects we would not be talking about: star ratings, Michael Billington, Twitter. I chose the words “people who write about theatre” deliberately: although I do review theatre for the Guardian occasionally, I don't consider myself a critic. I write mostly from the other side of press night, interviewing people and, when I'm extremely lucky, getting a glimpse of their rehearsal process. Increasingly, I feel my job is one of elucidating how theatre is made, and perhaps, when possible, what it means for it to be made that way.

It's one thing to do that for the Guardian. It's another thing to do that on my own terms, as I've discovered through working with Chris Goode. I can't even begin to express the magnitude of the gift Chris has given me. When he first opened the doors of his rehearsal process to me, in May last year, I thought I was simply walking into a room in which theatre was made. But I've come to appreciate that, rather like in one of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books, there is another landscape that overlaps, exists simultaneously with, the physical room: a place invisible, metaphysical, pulsing with love and danger and challenge. The writing I do as an explorer in that second landscape is different from anything I've done before. It has demanded everything of me. It was while sitting at the heart of that landscape, trying to articulate everything I saw and thought and felt in my 24 hours at Open House, that I discovered the need to talk with others about theatre writing, what new kinds of theatre writing we could make.

Chris is so receptive to dialogue between himself and theatre-writers, it didn't occur to me that anyone would receive this idea with suspicion. So I was taken aback by the fierceness with which some of the makers at the session supported the traditional barriers or distances that separate makers and writers. It reminded me again of what Jamie Wood said to me during Chris's Cendrars project: from the moment a piece of theatre enters the performance space, it is being appraised and judged and criticised. The rehearsal room is the only safe haven that theatre-makers have. The necessity of being respectful of and sympathetic towards that is absolute. But it's not just about that: there is a very deep feeling that a critic must remain impartial, by having limited contact with the makers of any given show, if they are to be able to critique it without being, as Lyn Gardner put it, compromised.

My notes from the session are here, so I won't give a blow-by-blow account for the rest. As I said there, it was a session full of questions, with no easy answers, which is just as it should be. Looking the notes up for the link, I was vaguely troubled that a piece I wrote about D&D2 prompted Karen Fricker to address some of those questions, and this was back in 2007. Once again, behind the times.

One of the questions raised was aimed directly at me: Jamie Wood wondered what I can contribute to the understanding of Chris's work, bearing in mind that – at least while he was blogging on Thompson's – he is a thorough and enviably eloquent articulator of his own processes, politics and purposes. Part of me wants to respond to this question by squeezing my eyes shut, clamping my hands over my ears, shaking my head and saying, “I don't know, I don't know”, over and over again. But being put on the spot in a public place was good for me. Instead I talked more generally about elucidating a view of the process that differs from the maker's and so might have the potential to widen their understanding of their own work; making connections between their work/processes and those of other theatre companies of whom they might not have direct experience; creating a record of how the show was made from an outside perspective, that might be more useful to “general” audiences (as opposed to other makers), especially those faced with abstruse or opaque or experimental work. What I didn't say, and I'm still thinking this through, is that maybe the theatre that is intensely personal – the kind of theatre that Chris makes – is short-changed by mainstream theatre criticism, where the perceived goal is an objectivity that eschews vulnerability and rejects emotional bias. What I write about Chris is as intensely personal as what he makes; like him, I strive to do that from a place of generosity, not arrogance.

I have three abiding regrets about D&D7. One is that a young Asian woman called Amardeep, making her way as a critic, convened a session called “widening the pool of theatre critics”, which clashed with mine. Our groups ended up merging, which must have been horribly frustrating for her, because the discussion she wanted to have was precisely the discussion I didn't want. This was her first D&D, and I hate the idea that she might feel that there is no space there for her. So this is a heartfelt public apology. As I said to her on the day, the pool of theatre critics widens every time someone who isn't white+male+middle-class jumps in. What's problematic is the desire to be a big fish in the pool. (I forgot to say that bit.)

My second regret is that I spent so long chatting with Jake Orr that I missed Rajni Shah's session on the value of doubt, reflection and uncertainty. Meeting Rajni was one of the great joys of D&D, and reading her notes on the session makes me wish I had been there.

Another session I missed, because it clashed with mine, was Tassos Stevens's A Surprise. I adore Tassos and would have loved to be there, and having read his description of it feel both awful and enormously grateful that anyone came to my session at all (it's a mark, I hope, of how passionately we felt about that potential dialogue). We clashed because I was avoiding another clash, with Jamie Wood's social media session, so it's nice to report that something positive came out of that. Daniel Bye came along and was so enthusiastic and persuasive about the benefits of Twitter that I joined up the next day. I've spent the past year and more having conversations with people about Twitter: the argument I had settled on was that I already had too much noise in my life, what with the incessant chatter of the children, and I couldn't bear to introduce any more. But as I checked Twitter in the playground, while sitting next to my son as he played with his train set, as I stood in the queue at Sainsbury's, and it led me to one thoughtful and grown-up piece of writing after another, I realised how wrong I'd been. All this time I thought it would tip me over the edge: in fact, it might have been my salvation.