Thursday, 5 December 2013

In bed with a domestic extremist: Mental, the vacuum cleaner, and me

PLEASE NOTE: The following gives away an awful lot about about the vacuum cleaner's work Mental, which he's touring into 2014. If you'd rather experience the show knowing nothing, or at least with its surprises intact, it's probably not a good idea to read it until after you've seen it. Thanks.

We shuffle past the closed bedroom door, neatly lining shoes along the hallway wall, to a small, neat living room decorated with insurrectionist art and fabric owls. A cheerful, kindly woman offers tea and tiny carrot cakes, primly arranged on a tiered stand, and though the atmosphere is relaxed, an awkwardness hovers, as though we were gathered for the wake of a distant relation and weren't quite sure what our demeanour should be.

The bedroom, white with pistachio-green trim, is sparsely furnished. Disco sings sweetly from an old-fashioned record player. We snuggle against the wall beneath a giant duvet and slowly a hand emerges from the low bed before us, fingers wriggling as they test the air. Then a face, nervous but smiling. The body is very much alive: it's important to remember this, that we're beginning at the end, with James sitting with us, talking to us. We cling to this fact as his story unfolds.

*

“I've never done anything like this before in my life. Never made a 'show'. It was a real experiment to try and do it. I'm more comfortable with it now. I've kind of gone, yeah, I spent nearly two years making this thing, I should show it to people.”

Ten days before seeing Mental, I meet up with James-the-vacuum-cleaner-Leadbitter in his basement studio in the Artsadmin building, a square concrete room that might feel like a prison – the one small window is high in a corner, and barely lets in natural light – were it not for the homely clutter and art crowded around the walls. One painting, hanging above the two desks, stands out: a rectangular canvas, painted gold, with the words “Representative art is so 19th century” printed on it in stark black helvetica. In the corner opposite the window, a duvet is crammed in the space above a storage cupboard; beside the door sits the old-fashioned vacuum cleaner from which he takes his pseudonym. He rolls out a folding table for our tea; I sit in a black office chair that insists on spinning me away from him. He laughs: “That's my producer's chair. It's like: get back to the computer, get back to work.”

Leadbitter started making work in 2003, shortly after his first stay in a psychiatric hospital. “The very first piece I did was called Cleaning Up After Capitalism: I had the vacuum cleaner, and wore a yellow bib with 'cleaning up after capitalism' on the back, and I'd go into public spaces or corporate spaces, like chain stores, or the City of London, and do a cleaning act. I'd clean and engage people in conversation. A lot of my work was straddling performance intervention with direct political action.” A lot of it landed him in serious trouble, too. In 2005, he was taken to court by Starbucks for a number of transgressions against its brand, which included defacing Starbucks coffee cups so the logo read “Fuck off” and setting up a website encouraging others to do the same. It's worth reading the “decision of independent expert” document commissioned as part of the case: Leadbitter's irreverence offsets the corporate humourlessness beautifully.

His protest came from a place of boredom: “I got bored with mainstream activism, I got bored with marching against the war in Afghanistan.” And from cultural discussion around branding: “No Logo came out in 2001 and that was really influential. I started to read Adbusters, the Canadian magazine, and fucking around with billboards. Graffiti and street art really influenced me, that thing of: don't wait for the audience to come to you, take the work to the audience, go to the community and present your work to them, go to the contested spaces and make the work there. That always got me really excited.”

But beneath the global-political was the local-personal. “Having gone through the psychiatric system, which felt very oppressive, often it was about creating a space of liberation through these performative acts. I often would look at advertising and feel really alienated, so it would be reacting against that, or challenging that kind of dogma. And I guess I was at a point in my life when, I was 23, I didn't really give a fuck about anything. Not I didn't give a fuck about anything, some things I really cared about, but I wasn't necessarily concerned with what would be the consequences of what I was doing. Also, the medical treatment that I'd got really didn't work, so this became my way of trying to make sense of the world, and make sense of these experiences I'd had in treatment and as a teenager.”

In some ways, teenage Leadbitter was typical, at least of people who end up working in theatre. “I went to a really great youth theatre in Burnley, so I had that bug from an early age. I used to run tech for the whole youth theatre; my mum wanted me to be an actor but I preferred doing design.” When it came to university, he opted for set and lighting design at the Central School of Speech and Drama: what a mistake. “I hated it: it was really conservative, and I should have gone to Dartington with my friend Robert.” He dropped out after a year. But it wasn't just the course: the depression he'd started experiencing before university was worsening. He was already self-harming; now he was suicidal. And this is where Mental begins.

*

There were so many possibilities.

Running in front of a lorry.

Jumping off the roof.

Pills. Knives. Rope-lengths of fabric.

He tells us these stories surrounded by heavy wads of paper, piles and piles of documents, medical assessments, police records, obtained via the Freedom of Information act, each portraying a version of James Leadbitter, the slight man with tufty hair, twinkling eyes and an electric-blue dress scooping from his shoulders, who sits in his bed, in his own bedroom, sharing an outsized duvet with his audience. One by one he slips plastic sheets on to an overhead projector and reads from them the evaluations of doctors and nurses, the clandestine comments of police and their spies. If you're quick, you can read outside the highlighted sections, get a fuller picture. I notice with a catch of breath his birthday: 29th May, five days before mine. Fractured personalities written in the stars.

I don't remember all the details of the life he narrates – it's a few weeks since I saw the piece, and the intimacy of the environment precluded taking notes – but I remember vividly his demeanour. He has the campness of a late-night-telly light entertainer; the roguishness of a small boy doing something he knows he's not supposed to, face sparkling with pleasure in transgressing and being witnessed in his transgression. The line between performing himself and being himself is subtle, and will shift according to the perception of individual audience members: I feel he stands one side of it at the beginning, when he's talking himself into starting the show, the other in the fleeting moments when overcome by a memory of cruelty, or kindness. His inability to comprehend his treatment at the hands of powerful social institutions is ongoing and genuine. But always there is this levity in his narration, which comes from a place of generosity, a desire to support his audience as we listen and absorb.

The disco soundtrack, soft and radiant with love, gifts more lightness. One song repeats over and over:

Love is, love is the message that I sing to you
Love is the message that I bring to you

The contrast of that care with the official language of the documents is sharp. Here, Leadbitter is a number, a sequence of actions, a list of medication. His humanity is bypassed. Frequently Mental feels like a work not of individual autobiography but of exposure, indicting a society that practises institutionalised betrayal. No one who works at the hospital where he is first sectioned tells Leadbitter that it specialises in treating personality disorders. The more successful he becomes as the vacuum cleaner, the more rigorous and resourceful the police become in inhibiting his activities. It's not until he recognises a face on Channel 4 that he can explain this feeling of being targeted: the groups with whom he has been working have been repeatedly infiltrated. The police documents are packed with personal information: address, identity numbers, hidden distinguishing features such as the tattoo on his back that reads “our civilisation is fucked”. They got that one wrong, says Leadbitter, mouth curled in a sardonic smile. He turns around, pulls up his frock; the light catches on the letters carved into his skin: “THIS CIVILISATION IS FUCKED”.

*

“People talk about mental illness as this monolith, but it's as broad as any other – schizophrenia to anxiety is what cancer is to a common cold. It's not comparable, but, you know.”

At the age of 19 – he's now 33 – Leadbitter was identified as experiencing multiple mental health problems: depression, general anxiety disorder, panic anxiety disorder. More seriously, he was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Only no one told him. “It's quite common if you have what's called a serious mental illness, so things like paranoid schizophrenia, borderline multiple personality disorder. For a long time they wouldn't tell you because the stigma of the diagnosis could be as bad as the actual diagnosis. I get that, but for me that's not the issue: the issue is how you inform the patient.” He finally found out about two years ago, at the end of an assessment process, when he was handed a sheet of paper with his diagnosis and sent on his way. There's a painfully funny scene in Mental when he pulls a copy of Borderline Personality Disorder For Dummies (it genuinely exists) from under the duvet, one of many books he bought when trying to make sense of this new information.

Essentially, he was being medicated for a condition he didn't know he had, and that, says Leadbitter, “was really destructive. Because by the time I was 26, I'd got a job at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow, I was in a relationship, but I was still completely undiagnosed, and all of that crumbled in my hands. I totally destroyed it all because I didn't know what was going on. I didn't have the language to talk about it, couldn't reflect on it, you know?” He moved back to London and attempted to reconstruct his life, “in a way in which I could cope. I developed all these coping strategies, smoking a lot of cannabis.” But they didn't work, and in 2009 he had a relapse and was back in hospital.

Acquiring and reading through the thousands of pages of medical notes written about him over that 14-year period has been “one of the hardest things I've ever done”. Did he recognise himself in the descriptions he encountered? “It's really different. Some bits you're like, yes, that's so correct, and then other bits you're like, what the fuck are you talking about? Who are you talking about? It really depends on the person you're talking to, because there isn't necessarily a test for it, it's not like you can do a blood test and be told, you have bipolarity, it's so much to do with your own representation of your experiences, how you talk about your experiences.” Which might be different on any given day, I note. “Exactly. Some days you can't even speak, and some days you're spilling rather than sharing.”

I ask if there's a family history of mental illness; there is, but, he emphasises: “I don't buy that [mental illness] is just genetic or it's just social. I have a very strong attitude that anybody that wants to apply a simplistic model to mental health is getting it wrong, because it's infinitely complicated.” Talking therapy – of which he is a staunch advocate – offers a brilliant insight into those complications, he argues. “Although it is utterly, utterly painful, and quite horrific at times, it's also a wonderful process of discovery, not just in terms of yourself and your mind but how that relates to the world that we live in and how society functions. You learn that everything is so utterly complicated, there are no black-and white-situations.”

*

The lights dim and Richard Hawley's voice, comforting as a sheepskin coat, croons in the darkness:

Roll river, keep on rolling
Ancient lady cold
I'm forsaken, lost and forgotten
Roll river roll

In James' bedroom, watching a shaky film of a tiny, adored figure walking in the middle of the street in a Glasgow full of snow, I absorbed Roll River Roll as a love song; it's only later, reading the lyrics, that I realise it's the ballad of a man about to drown. James' description of his post-relapse suicide attempt is delivered lightly, with a tender solicitude, for himself and his audience, but with every accruing detail it becomes harder to hear. He mentions the carrot cake he bought for his final meal and I remember eating mine before I came in and want to cry. He shows pictures of his room in the hostel he moved to after leaving the hospital, a safe house for people at risk of suicide, remembers the night in the kitchen when he had to resist the siren call of the knife drawer, and was held by a warden whose non-judgemental understanding cracked the ice of his benumbed soul, and we all want to cry, James too. Always there is the knowledge that he is here, telling us these stories; he survived and continues to survive. But it's the overwhelming awareness of the pain he has experienced that makes Mental so difficult to sit within. That, and the fact that he relives it, in front of an audience, night after night after night. That in itself feels like a kind of self-harm, and I don't know how he can do it.

*

“In the three hours leading up to the performance, it's very like, 'Am I really about to share all this stuff? Why am I doing this?' And then I start and do the show and afterwards I feel really icky.”

One of the things I like about following the vacuum cleaner on twitter – aside from his ongoing campaign against mental-health stigma, embedded in our culture in the abuse of words like mental, crazy, bonkers, nuts, which he attacks with weariness, fury and sparks of dry humour – is that every now and then he'll have a sharp little dig at conventional theatre. He looks a little shame-faced when I bring this up. “I'm not a big fan of what I call theatre-with-a-capital-T. I guess I struggle with a lack of legitimacy in a lot of these things: when you've been in a psychiatric hospital, you go to the theatre and, like, this doesn't compare. When was the last time you saw a mad person play Hamlet? And how amazing would that be? So yeah, I do bitch about it quite a bit.

“It feels like theatre hasn't quite caught up with visual-art theory, you know? Visual art has very much abandoned representative practice, but theatre is still wrapped up in that. When I do go to a theatre and see the things that I really love and get me excited or angry or upset, it's people speaking about their personal experiences, like Kim Noble or Bryony Kimmings. The first time I saw Franko B – and we've worked together a bit – it really hit me: it wasn't just this pretending, it was very, very real. I can relate to that on a very personal level, but I also like that immediacy.”

When performing Mental in cities other than London, Leadbitter always aims to find another bedroom to house it. His one experience of staging it in a theatre venue has confirmed to him how important that is. “I did it at the Tramway in Glasgow a few weeks ago, that was to 50 people, and it was really difficult. I don't think it ruined it, but it did change it quite a bit. I had to extend the range of my performance, some bits had to be a little bit bigger. At home I can be quieter, I have that real intimacy. It changed it for the audience, too: there's this bit in my story about the police coming into my bedroom to take me into hospital, that's much more significant when it's in my own bedroom.”

The decision to stage Mental in a bedroom rather than an open social space like a theatre also demands that the audience travel somewhere unfamiliar – in my case, in the dark and on my own, which always generates mild anxiety in me. “There's a slight challenge in there,” Leadbitter agrees. “That's something I found doing the show in Latvia, at this amazing festival called Homo Novus. A lot of people were coming to me afterwards and saying: 'I was really frightened about coming to see your show, I was going to be in this bedroom with this crazy person, the police say he's a domestic extremist, I was frightened! And then it starts and you just destroyed that thing immediately.' I hadn't really thought about it like that at all.” But that's wonderful, I say. “It is! And it's nice to challenge that preconception of mental illness as well.”

It was the second hospital stay that encouraged Leadbitter to reconsider his work, and made Mental possible. The difference, he says, was that the breakdown: “was really public. I was doing this big commission with Artsadmin, I had to drop that. That was really difficult, because I felt like I was letting them down. And I was tweeting about it a bit at the time. It was this thing of going: this is so fucking intense for me. I was very close to dying on a few occasions.

“Actually, this is something that's really amazing: for me and a lot of my crazy friends, we all say this is our civil rights moment. A lot of us talk about coming out of the closet. It's this thing of going, fuck it, I'm not hiding this any more. So although it was very difficult, it had some positiveness to it. And it really changed the direction of the kind of work I was making. Also – I found this doing the Mental piece – coming out and going, OK, this is the shit I have to deal with in life, you get other people going, yeah, I can relate to your experiences, and these are my experiences. That solidarity is so, so empowering. When somebody says, I know what that's like, and you know they know what that's like, you go: OK, I'm not on my own, this person can genuinely relate to me.

“The language that people use is really, really different to when you're in hospital and you say to the nurse, I don't want to continue any more, I can't take it any more, and they say, we're going to help you get through this. The response is so different. It's little things like, I said to somebody I really want to self-injure, and they were like: have you tried putting elastic bands around your wrists? When you really want to do it, pull them really hard and flick them against your wrist. I tried it and it was great. Or I'm having a panic attack on the ward and an old guy comes over and calms me down in 10 minutes, no drugs, sat with me, held my hand. It's a really beautiful and amazing thing to have that solidarity and mutual care. More of that please.”

Increasingly, his work seeks to create places in which solidarity, empathy and empowerment can flourish. Many audience-members have commented that they could do with sharing the cup of tea after Mental, rather than before, to decompress after inhabiting such an intense space; Leadbitter understands that need, but asks his audience to leave directly after the show, because he too needs space to look after himself and decompress. (This isn't a hard-and-fast rule, and compassion is exercised: the night I saw it, one member of the audience was so affected they left the bedroom, went straight to the bathroom and burst into tears; they were then allowed to stay in the empty bedroom until ready to face the night.) As quoted above, performing Mental makes Leadbitter feel “icky”; what pulls him through is the audience response, not in the room so much as in conversation, on email and on twitter in the hours and days afterwards. People open up to him about their own experiences with depression, doctors, anti-depressants; they ask his advice; they tell him: “I can relate.” In Latvia, he says, “a 19-year-old woman came up to me after the show and said, 'I've never said this to anybody, not even my parents: I have a psychiatrist. I've never told anyone and I've seen your show and I'm not embarrassed any more.' For all the difficult it is for me to do the piece, for that one person, I'm happy.”

Prior to Mental, he made a piece called Ship of Fools, in which he turned his flat into a hospital for a month and sectioned himself. “The Ship Of Fools will function as an inter-section between mental sanctuary and creative liberty,” he explained on his website. “As part of this time the vacuum cleaner seeks creative residencies at the Ship Of Fools: both artist and non-artists alike in an attempt to find creativity in madness.” His next project takes that idea much further. “It's called Madlove – A Designer Asylum. I'm a big believer in the notion of an asylum, a safe place to go to experience madness, but it's going to be an asylum designed by mad people for mad people to experience madness in a more positive and less painful way. We're going to bring mad people together and people that work in the mental health industry, or people that are carers or that support people, and say: right, because psychiatric hospitals are so oppressive and so difficult to be in, let's redesign it completely. Let's think about what we need to go through this experience. It's still going to be painful, but let's change it. My producer has this really wonderful statement: it's putting the treat back into treatment.”

I can't wait to visit.

*

Seeing Mental had and continues to have a profound effect on me. It's affected how I watch theatre: a few days after I was in Leeds and happened to catch the James Brining production of Sweeney Todd at West Yorkshire Playhouse; its first scene is set in an asylum, and it looked exactly like the asylum in Joe Hill-Gibbins' Young Vic production of The Changeling, right down to the individual gestures of the actors. I left at the interval, unable to watch any more, feeling no connection with what I was seeing. At the end of November I caught up with Hannah Silva's The Disappearance of Sadie Jones, a taut three-hander about a woman whose depression has led to anorexia; there was much about it, not least in the breakdown of language, that felt insightful, and yet part of me was troubled by the aestheticisation of this experience, particularly in a scene when Sadie kneels on a cabinet and slowly wraps a red chiffon scarf around her waist and wrist, delineating self-harm. In that moment, honesty was replaced by theatre.

Much like Chris Goode's God/Head, Mental has made me reconsider what it means to be honest. Now and then people commend me on the honesty of my writing and I feel quietly fraudulent, because I hide as much as I reveal. I come from a very old-fashioned culture that believes fundamentally in putting up a front; much as my family rail against its hypocrisy, it's coded within us and that's a hard habit to break. But it's also typical of me to interiorise everything: keeping a blog has been extraordinary in that respect, in reminding me that self-expression isn't just possible but OK.

Increasingly I'm interested in what it means to invite someone to listen to the voice that rattles around your own head. A lot of the work I've really cherished this year – Mental, The Worst of Scottee, Laura Jane Dean's Head Hand Head, Peter McMaster's Wuthering Heights – in some way or another does exactly that. Head Hand Head (which Chris Goode helped in shaping) really touched me: for maybe 40 minutes, Laura enacts the different obsessive compulsive routines that she has adopted over time to cope with the paradoxical trauma of being so terrified of dying that you're afraid to be alive. The voice that speaks to us is the same voice she hears inside her head. It felt like a privilege to be given access to something so private.

Mental felt like a privilege, too. I left it feeling intense gratitude towards James, for sharing his internal voices with me. I heard enough of myself in it that I've been galvanised into doing things I hadn't previously thought possible, into engaging in conversations that I hadn't previously been able to contemplate. The narrative of struggle, or not being able to cope, is still expressed so rarely that people are startled by it, or react negatively to it: we need to work together to support its honest expression, and through that change the social conditions that make struggle and the inability to cope so much a part of our lives.

*

“Do you feel in control?”

He shakes his head. A barely audible whisper: “No.”

“What could be done for you to feel in control?

There's a small pause. “Well, I think that the art world needs to get a bit real about supporting disabled artists. Artsadmin are phenomenally great at it but I feel that a lot of the time me and my producer are really having to fight for the support I need to do the show; we're having to say: 'This is why it's going to be a bit more expensive, because somebody needs to help him and look after him.' So that could be better.

“Not being attacked by the state for being disabled would be a help: I'm going through the Atos process at the moment – Atos Healthcare are doing the whole welfare reform process – so I'm having to defend my benefits, it's really anxiety-provoking and the stigma is still really horrific. I've been assaulted coming out of the hospital, people have attacked me because I'm coming out of the psychiatric hospital. Casual use of the word mental, or the casual use of the word crazy, it hurts, it hurts when I hear it, so that's still difficult. It's difficult to have to go: listen, I don't want to be aggressive or assertive about this, but can you not use that word around me because it hurts.

“There are some really amazing people out there who get it. Without Gill Lloyd [co-director of Artsadmin], without Lois [Keidan, co-director of Live Art Development Agency], I would have stopped making work three years ago. Gill has fought, she's said: 'James, you need to keep going; I'll help you write an Arts Council application because you can't even read at the moment; if you've nowhere to go, sleep in your studio, don't worry about the rent, it's fine.' I was going to get kicked out of the homeless hostel I was in and the fact that she would stand by me and write to the council and say, 'You can't do this to somebody', that is phenomenal.

“The way I describe it to some people who I feel don't quite get it is: 'Imagine you're doing a show in a building and it's not wheelchair accessible, you wouldn't say to the person in the wheelchair, you need to build your own ramp to get into the building.' But often that's what happens to me: often, I have to explain that I need to bring two people with me, one to look after me during the show, one to look after me outside; I need a quiet dressing room because when it's noisy I'm going to have a panic attack.

“That's part of the battle and I'm prepared to fight for that, because it's not just for me: it's for every person who has a mental illness.”


Tuesday, 26 November 2013

i used to sew and bake and art and now it's all theatre bloody theatre

In the past fortnight I have:

attended six plays, one film, one art exhibition and three panel discussions;

written two album reviews, five posts for two different blogs, published a long post on another blog that I'd been working on for some weeks, and written/co-delivered a presentation at a panel discussion;

hosted two Theatre Clubs;

done a job interview while sitting in a stationary cupboard;

got the job (a writing gig for December, nice);

danced at two practices with the Actionettes;

(and spent time reading Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle and Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, both inspiring, in different ways);

(and finally encountered the brilliance of Borgen);

(and done the school runs, and organised childcare, and cooked dinners);

(I think I've just realised why I'm always so tired);

and I honestly think in all of that the thing I'm most proud of doing is making a really nice pomegranate cake on Sunday morning. A few weeks ago I had a glut of pomegranates and the usual recipe books (Claudia Roden, Sophie Grigson, Nigel'n'Nigella) weren't offering any inspiration, so I sent my magic friend Samantha a text asking for suggestions and she offered: a trifle made of lemon cake layered with cherries stewed in sherry, orange flower water and pomegranate molasses and Greek yoghurt mixed with more orange flower water, then drizzled with pomegranate molasses and pistachios; a pavlova with rosewater in the meringue and the cream and pomegranates on top; a sponge cake with them in the cream and on top; and Nigella's pomegranate cake. See why she's magic? I made a less complicated version of the trifle and very good it was too.

On Sunday I had another glut and this time turned to the Nigella recipe. And, as usual, decided to mess around with it. Instead of just putting the pomegranates/syrup on top at the end, I turned it into a caramelised upside-down pomegranate cake, which was just as well because on removing it from the oven I dropped it face-down on the oven door, and it would have been ruined if the topping hadn't been on the bottom. So this is my recipe, and not for the first time it's dedicated to Sam, with love and mutual heritage:

Upside-down pomegranate cake

4 eggs, separated
150g caster sugar
100g ground almonds
50g plain flour
1tsp baking powder
half tsp mixed spice
half tsp almond essence

for the topping:
75g brown sugar
20g butter
1 tblsp pomegranate molasses
seeds of 2 pomegranates

the oven was at roughly 170C for this, and I cook it in a round 19cm springform cake tin lined with baking parchment

Get the seeds out of the pomegranates first.

Put the sugar into a saucepan on the lowest possible heat to melt. While doing the beating/whisking/folding jobs that follow, keep an eye on the sugar so it doesn't burn, and when about a third of it is melted add the pomegranate molasses and butter. It needs stirring to stop it from sticking. Or turning into a lump.

Beat the egg yolks with the sugar until they're pale and thick, then fold in the almonds, flour, baking powder, mixed spice and almond essence – I ended up being fairly vigorous with it, because it gets pretty stiff. Whisk the egg whites until you can turn the bowl upside-down without them falling out, stir as much of them as is required into the rest of the mixture to loosen it, then fold in the rest.

Pour the caramel into the cake tin and swirl it around to cover the bottom of the tin. Tip all the pomegranate seeds on top, then spoon the cake mixture on top of that. Bake for about 45/50 minutes until a tester comes out clean. The caramel oozes into the cake mixture, the sponge is really light because it hasn't got any butter, the almond essence makes it taste a bit like macaroons and the mixed spice got me ready for Christmas.

Monday, 18 November 2013

healing, and feeling

In the Mini Grey book Egg Drop, an impatient egg decides to fly by leaping from the top of a very tall tower, 583 steps high. A double spread of illustrated polaroids depicts the many futile attempts to put him back together again. They try string, sticky tape, tomato soup, chewing gum. “Nothing really worked”, says the narrator, mournfully, “and shells don't heal.”

*

No video for this song, so listen to it here.

*

I went to see Dirty Market's Oxbow Lakes hoping it would fix me. There was a pertinence to its marketing – “Oxbow Lakes dramatises a child's experience of his parents' conflicted feelings towards him and themselves,” no less – that made me think this play would KNOW. That it was coming from a place of knowing, because Dirty Market's directors, Georgina Sowerby and Jon Lee, are a couple, and have children. In the event, the play felt like the string and sticky tape, tomato soup and chewing gum that prove so ineffective in healing shells, because I saw it when so broken by a trip to London Zoo – can I just pause here for a diatribe against London Zoo? What a fucking nightmare of capitalist extortion. As soon as you walk in – and even getting through the gates costs enough to fill a fridge and food cupboard – it's trying to prise money from you. Take the kids to the toilet and there's the shop, taunting them. Just past the entrance are face-painting and a bouncy castle and fairground rides, all at extra cost. And then everywhere you go there are merchandise stalls, so there's no escape from objects of obscure desire that attract your children ineluctably, far more than the animals, most of whom are asleep anyway. I HATE IT. And the most recent visit was so traumatic that a) I never want to go back, not even to see again how beautiful giraffes' eyelashes are and how much otters love to lick each other's genitals, and b) I arrived at Oxbow Lakes drowning in my unfitness as a mother.

Oxbow Lakes starts with a party, an attempt at a party, poisoned by the child refusing to fall asleep for fear of the shadowy figures lurking in the dark, and the husband and wife (played by Jon and Georgina) arguing over their responsibility in voices choked by the frustration that cloaks guilt: the guilt of regret, of longing, of feeling inadequate to the task of raising another human. The guilt of knowing that a child is supposed to expand your horizons and perspective, yet feeling instead a narrowing of self and existence. How appropriate that this first scene plays out on an impossibly skinny rectangle of stage, the child a black shadow on a white curtain, casting a pall on everything the adults attempt to do.

But what starts as gruesome kitchen-sink realism (there's even a Look Back in Anger ironing board) transforms into grotesque fairy tale when we're moved behind the curtain to the kitsch horror landscape of Oxbow Lakes. The child has fallen into a bedtime story and disappeared into the night; his parents chase after him, mother frantic, Dad inept, both thwarted by a constabulary that would control them and creepy snobbish locals whose nefarious motives are obscure. There was menace here, but also comedy: characters styled as though in a John Waters film, all quiffs and kookiness, those played by Benedict Hopper in particular dry as dead leaves and daffy as panto. The deeper the parents sink into this murky, cartoon world – and again, the set is really considered, a series of painted flats in a magnified Victorian toy theatre – the more estranged they become, until one of them literally no longer recognises the other. Are they really searching for the child? Or a notion of happiness that might not even exist?

There was something problematic about the transition to the final space: a clumsiness in the handling of the audience, who were left behind then admonished for not following sooner; it slowed us down and interrupted the tension. The space we move into is the most menacing yet; I recall plastic sheeting, looming witches, lights swinging, a ribbon rope our only protection, a huge sheela-na-gig icon with gaping, lairy mouth – was it threatening to eat the parents? Destroy them at least. It is their last chance to recognise the distance between the real life they have come to think of as a nightmare, and this place of horror and fear; and because this is a kind fairy story, they do. They rediscover their love for each other, and for their child; they cry out, with relief, with hope, with expressions of love. My broken heart trembled, and longed to feel a similar redemption.

I don't know Georgina or Jon, but we twitter-spoke the next day, after which I sent Georgina an email, a tribute to her bravery I guess; I wanted to confess that I'd seen my darkest soul splayed across the piece, and ask if making it had helped her find a state of grace. She admitted in return that in some respects it worsened the strain, consuming both her and Jon through the summer, as they wrote and rehearsed and built the set and cleaned the venue, leaving scant space for their seething children (who, it transpires, are the same age as mine). For all that it felt like an ensemble work – particularly in the middle section, where a looseness in the text conveyed the multiple collaborative voices engaged in its creation – Oxbow Lakes felt acutely personal, too: a slightly jumbled, self-conscious, but willingly truthful portrait of the struggle to accept that parenting is a difficult, messy business, a concatenation of tiny defeats that puncture the spirits, intermingled with a joy so extreme it turns you to jelly. Strawberry jelly, that the kids consume whole. My life met theirs in that performance space; at points I'd glance around the younger people in the audience, wondering: do you have children? Do you want them? What does this story mean to you? Are you reading this as lived experience? As a cautionary tale?

*

From the oily murk of Oxbow Lakes to the white soil of Albemarle. Two weeks of October were spent in a rehearsal room with Chris Goode and Company, watching a new phase of research and development into this big strange illogical re-creation of a dream. And immediately I think: no, stop now, don't pin it down in writing, don't define it when – like a child – it still has so much growing to do. But this is just a snapshot of Albemarle in its infancy, taken not to forget. And Albemarle is so like a child at the moment, so like my four-year-old son: curious, and open, and full of love for the individuals who nurture it; unafraid to be naked, or to speak its mind and heart truthfully, without coding or restraint.

There were times in the rehearsal room when I found that truthfulness unbearable. On Monday when I watched Heather Upritchard take off her clothes and mark with black biro every aspect of her body that has caused her anxiety, tracing its lingering scars of uneasy existence, evidence of brutality against herself, and inflicted on her by a capitalist, competitive society. On the same day, Jo Clifford talked about the battle to avoid invasive surgery when transitioning from male to female, the lack of care or respect demonstrated by doctors whose only concern is to fix a body within rigid conservative notions of gender. These events were coloured by a piece of text Chris had written, which he read out on a day when I wasn't in the room, detailing one by one the childhood experiences that had estranged him from his body, and filled him with shame. The unbearable became two-fold: there is so much pain in so many people, and so much noise in my own head that I find hard to block out. As ever, I took refuge in music, and for most of the fortnight I had this song in my head:


And when Lou Reed died, at the end of the fortnight, it was quietly replaced with this song:





And yet, the body was also the site of immense joy in the rehearsal room. There was the shared pleasure of dancing, dancing like no one is watching, dancing to discover freedom. (In the dream that he's re-creating, Chris is directing a dance show – something he's always wanted, but been too afraid, to do.) There was the brain-testing delight of watching Jeni Draper speak in sign language, each moment of comprehension a happy surprise. (Jeni plays Chris' neighbour, Simon Pegg – it's a dream, OK? – and is integral to the utopia Chris is creating within the piece, in which ethnicity, gender, disability, sexuality, are not crushed by iron hierarchical structures that promote primarily the white middle-class heterosexual able-bodied “normal” male, but co-exist in more fluid, generous social arrangements.) There was, for Jo – who plays Chris' mum (in the dream no longer dead) – and Chris, a shared experience of taking control of the body's representation, inspiring to witness. Jo, I sense from her blog, is engaged in a long slow process of stripping away the carapace she built around herself in unhappy decades of living as a man; on a day when I wasn't in the room, she did this literally, flinging off her clothes in a fervour of relief at feeling accepted, admired, for the complicated, transgender being that she is. On a day when I was in the room, I saw Chris – fleetingly, in glimpses, because I was busy swirling around like a gush of water – move in a way I've never seen him move before: he's usually so tip-toey and timid, but here he ran and leapt and frolicked like a foal discovering the power of its feet. Afterwards we sat as a group and talked about this transformation, and he looked suddenly years younger, luminous.

We talked about healing, too, and self-indulgence. This was an indulgent room. Many days began with a massage, with taking the time to care for someone quietly, physically, listening to their body's needs. How is that work? All these cries from the soul: isn't that what therapy is for? At the end of the fortnight, Albemarle travelled to Leeds for a further stage of R&D, this time with the dancers; one of them, Jonny Liron, also works in construction, and quickly demonstrated his impatience with the touchy-feely London room. When do builders, or supermarket workers, or train drivers, get the space to sift through crushing experiences of scorn and betrayal, of bullying and shame?

It's easy to condemn artists for abysmal narcissism. It's much harder to attempt to answer why capitalist structures foster scorn, betrayal, bullying and shame – and what kind of society could we build in which people no longer cause or feel this pain? A society in which consideration is more important than competition? We carry within ourselves what we need to make utopia, Chris suggested on that luminous day, but it's beaten down by violence, brutality and fear.

While working with Chris, I read a book by American writer and queer activist Sarah Schulman that was like having my eyes scoured with brillo pads: I saw the world around me, and myself, differently, more clearly, afterwards. The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination looks at the impact of Aids on the queer, trans, immigrant, artist and in myriad ways other communities of New York in the 1980s, its acceleration of a two-fold process of gentrification: the same physical gentrification that I've been witnessing across London in my lifetime, whereby areas once home to huddle-muddle social groups become colonised by white moneyed middle-classes, squeezing and pricing everyone else either out of the area or into isolation and inferiority; and a mental gentrification no less recognisable, whereby what she scathingly describes as “supremacy ideology” promotes a homogenised culture in which corporate, non-individual, non-antagonistic expression are given social dominance while radicalism or dissent are either punitively restricted or, once the mind is successfully gentrified, not attempted at all. It's an uncomfortable read, because it demands accountability, and because it cherishes discomfort:

Gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice. We go along with it, usually, because of the privilege of dominance, which is the privilege not to notice how our way of living affects less powerful people. … Depending on our caste and context, opportunities are regularly presented that enable us to achieve more safety by exploiting unjust systems. … We get to feel better precisely because someone else doesn't have what they need.

Conveniently there is a billion-dollar self-help industry that tells us to treat the very skewed frame as if it were neutral: Accept it. Be grateful for it. Do not resist. … If you are the demographic that the frame was designed to inflate, accepting it will help you maximise its privileges. But if you are the demographic that the frame was designed to defeat or marginalise, accepting it makes it more effective for its intended beneficiaries. …

We live with an idea of happiness that is based in other people's diminishment. But we do not address this because we hold an idea of happiness that … excludes asking uncomfortable questions and saying things that are true but which might make us and others uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable or asking others to be uncomfortable is practically considered antisocial because the revelation of truth is tremendously dangerous to supremacy.”
The Gentrification of the Mind, p166-7

For Schulman, people have “an unquestionable responsibility” to take care of others, “even if it makes you uncomfortable”. People have a right to individuated expression. People need to recognise that the perceptions of the privileged, prioritised in most cultural activity, are not the only reality. She speaks throughout from personal experience, subjective anecdote, painful memory. And yet, there is nothing indulgent about this book. It is a book that names and exposes the homogenising social frameworks that deny difference, disobedience, diversity, and begins to argue a path (back) towards utopia. Reading this book, I saw another glimpse of Albemarle.

*

Indulgence is a ticklish word within Chris Goode and Co. I wasn't involved in the rehearsal process for Scottee's show The Worst of Scottee earlier this year, which Chris directed, but understand that it came up a lot in that room, too. In The Worst, Scottee looks at four key experiences in his life, times when he lied, stole, took advantage of people, and did something in shy innocence with such cataclysmic negative effect that he's still living with the damage. Now and then, during the show, we see a filmed interview with someone Scottee knew during that time; the videos feel pointless, because all these people have long since moved on – but that, of course, is the point. No one bears as much ill-will towards Scottee as Scottee himself.

I thought The Worst was extraordinary. I know Scottee a little bit – I interviewed him early last year for the Guardian, about his brilliant beauty pageant (Ham)Burger Queen, and he surprised me: the minuscule awareness I had of his work had given me the now-incomprehensible impression that he'd be arrogant, aggressive, mocking; in fact he was friendly and thoughtful, if a touch businesslike, and admirably cogent in his argument for a live-art-meets-light-entertainment brand of performance that reaches out to people like his mum and his neighbours on the council estate where he lives – but I don't think knowing him much affected my response to The Worst, except perhaps in making me worry for his health while he's touring it. Part of what makes it extraordinary is its lacerating honesty; that, and the frame Scottee (and Chris) have created for its articulation. Scottee performs almost the entire thing in a mock-up photobooth, the kind of place teenagers used to go to take selfies before smartphones changed everything. He talks not directly to us but to the camera, to himself and to an anonymous world, a remove that allows impossible truths to be voiced aloud. He could be taking confession, except the only place absolution is going to come from is himself. Until now, what he's given himself instead is metamorphosis, from the fucked-up teenager with an eating disorder finding oblivion in alcohol and drugs to outrageously glam femme-chub Scottee; The Worst opens with him decked out in a piss-take funeral suit and black face paint, obstreperously singing Cry Me a River while fake tears soak his ruffled shirt. By the end, he has stripped away clothes, paint, skin, and his vulnerability is shocking.






Time is a healer,” Matt Trueman wrote in his review of The Worst, “and it’s here that the show sidesteps any suggestion of self-indulgence.” I found this interesting, not least because Matt is one of three people who described Chris' show God/Head as self-indulgent, and he used the same word privately to me as an indictment of Wuthering Heights, which we saw on the same night at Battersea Arts Centre, almost at the end of my Albemarle fortnight. How curious, I thought. Wuthering Heights wasn't indulgent. It was healing.

Wuthering Heights made me laugh and flinch and ache and cry. I want to try and remember it moment by moment, because none of the reviews I've read (with the exception of Catherine Love's) quite captures its richness, but I didn't take notes, so what follows is a jumble. It starts with a horse (Nick Anderson) whinnying as it gallops around the perimeter of the space, acknowledging and accepting its entrapment, while three men spruce themselves up in early-Victorian suits. The horse is monogamous, proud yet caring, with great respect for his ancestors who lived outwith captivity (how I love the cadence of that phrase). This, it's clear, is Heathcliff's horse: a measure of the man. But this is not – so Peter McMaster, who performs in and directed the piece, acknowledges in his introduction – a straightforward adaptation of Heathcliff's story. Peter realises this will trouble some people, but hopes they understand that this performance is being given to them with love.

We know these men love us because they recognise that Wuthering Heights, for a lot of people, means Kate Bush's batshriek wail just as much as Emily Bronte's novel, and within five minutes of the show starting it's blaring through the sound system and they're dancing:


Because I'm quite stupid, it wasn't until I read the reviews that I realised they were re-creating that video; in any case, I was too busy wanting to have sex with all of them right there to think about postmodern cultural cut-and-paste. I think this scene does something remarkable: it's light and it's funny and it's adorable, and in being so it shows you everything that is potentially attractive about self-possessed, confident, cheeky, preening, smarmy, lascivious masculinity. The masculinity that doesn't know its own privilege because it never needs to question it. Big, bold, butter-wouldn't-melt masculinity that gets away with murder, the murder of people and planet enacted day after day in the name of patriarchal society, because it's so seductive.

It's a masculinity the four men carry inside them: another early scene has them coughing as though drilling to the depths of their torsos to dislodge it. One morning in the Albemarle rehearsal room, Jamie Wood talked diffidently of his inner caveman, whose savage existence troubles him sometimes, but protects him, too. What is lost in the rejection of traditional, “natural” masculinity? What is gained?

There are two relays: in the first, the four men each describe an incident that contributed to shaping their ideas of masculinity. I remember Thom Scullion's: he recalled walking hand-in-hand with his father, aged about seven, and his father saying to him, “One day you won't want to do this any more.” Was his father preparing his son for manly isolationism, or preparing himself for inevitable rejection? Thom's story reminded me of a man I spoke to when taking part in Rosana Cade's brilliant Walking:Holding in August at Forest Fringe, a man in his 60s who had spent decades not holding hands with people, not even his wife, because when he was a child his father had told him men don't do such things.

In the second, the four take turns to comment on each other as though delivering a form sheet on a race horse: height, weight, key characteristics. He's in an 11-year relationship – wooh! Yeah! Slap him on the arse! He's a fan of masturbation – louder cheers! Champion pose! Slap him on the arse! In this sequence they are footballers scoring hard-fought goals, Usain Bolt on winning gold at the Olympics: self-aggrandising, swaggering, playing down weakness. The arse-slapping was perfectly judged: it is the bodily contact that alpha males find acceptable, anything else being gay and therefore abhorrent.

There is a slender thread running through all of this: a longing to father and be fathered. Another brief diversion: the word fathering inevitably makes me think of this song:


Hand-in-hand with that, this song:


Why Mark Mulcahy never became as famous as Jeff Buckley defeats me.

What next? Other masculine archetypes emerge: Thom stands in the centre of the circle, stiff-backed, authoritarian, a monolithic, unemotional figure who starts out generic, an industrialist, a grandfather, a begetter of individuals and so of society, but slowly transmogrifies into the no less authoritarian or monolithic Heathcliff, doomed both to perpetuate this figure and measure himself against it. The horse talks about Heathcliff and himself, in doing so emphasising that the field boundaries that contain his existence are replicated in his master's life. Heathcliff's ancestors may have lived outwith captivity, but Heathcliff is enclosed within a patriarchy that is slowly adapting to prudish Victorian morality and the slow rise of capitalism.

The irony is that to Cathy, Heathcliff represents a freedom, one she can't have. In one of the few sections that feel close to the novel, Cathy and Nelly – played by (I think) Murray Wason and Peter, dressed in long silken dresses that gape at the back, zips stuck beneath shoulder blades – Cathy and Nelly commune by candlelight: Cathy tells Nelly that she has agreed to marry Linton, but she's afraid, because she loves Heathcliff. She sinks to the floor, howling with the wildness and transformational potential of that love: “I love him because he's more me than I am myself.” I love him because with him I could reject or take on the world. I love him because he fills the air with extra oxygen. I love him even though he's trouble, because he's trouble, because I want to make trouble. I love him because we make each other better, stronger, braver people. There isn't enough of that kind of love in the world.

What else? Cathy's death, in Heathcliff's arms, him begging, desperate, wanting – but it's too late, because his pride murdered her, and his social position, and his jealousy, and his wildness, and his freedom. Her body is laid out in the centre of the circle and, in recognition of that dreary violence, the other three sing a murder ballad, Down in the Willow Garden, as though recanting a liturgy:



Another diversion: it's a source of some regret to me how much I love murder ballads. I have a sickening catalogue in my head of women strangled, stabbed, slashed at the neck, shot, left in a ravine, dumped in a lake, hidden beneath bracken, abandoned, decomposing, pecked at by birds of prey, sometimes because they had the temerity to look at or kiss or fuck another man, sometimes for no reason at all. I hate their violence, their misogyny, their jealous black emotion – and yet, there is a magnetic pull to their lurching rhythms and bleak chords that turns my head and makes me almost giddy. Songs in which the perpetrator is a woman are rare but I secretly, savagely relish them; these are two of my favourites:



It's after the murder ballad, I think, that Wuthering Heights fractures. Peter, still dressed as Nelly, walks up to Heathcliff, stands maybe a foot away from him, and begins to ask a series of questions, calmly at first, gradually becoming agitated, enraged, convulsed by pain. It's important that he's both male and female now, himself and a character; the questions could be spoken by Nelly to Heathcliff, by women or by men, by an individual or by society as a whole:

Are you feeling alone?
Do you like yourself?
Do you think you are a good person?
Do you see yourself in nature?
Do you get scared?
What do you think about sex?
What do you really think about sex?
What makes you feel aggressive?
Do you value women?
You know the things that happen in the night to women in parks or other dark places – do you think you could ever be the person who does that?
Are you homophobic?
Have you ever fantasized over a man?
Do you believe men and women are different?
Do you enjoy having power?
Do you know how to manipulate people?
When are you at your most vulnerable?
What will you never mention out loud?
What do you care about?
Are you trapped?
Does it make you sick?
Deflated?
Proud?
Anxious?
Horny?
Angry?
Ashamed?
Sorry?
Will it change?
Is it changing?
How long will it be like this?
How long?
There is something still to do isn’t there?
What is it?

That's maybe a quarter of the text; Peter reads it from sheets of paper, his voice growing hoarse as anger and anguish rip through his chest. Thom/Heathcliff stands motionless in the face of this hurricane, features barely flinching, but every word is like a dagger, and at just the moment when you think, surely he can't take any more, you realise that Cathy has risen and is standing behind him, her arms wrapped around his chest, not quite protecting him, or even forgiving him, but supporting him, reassuring him that this needs to be faced. One body holding another, beginning a process of healing. Creating a new framework of existence in which care is key.

What happens next? The scene is so excoriating, a prolonged electric shock, I don't quite remember. Soon Peter and Murray put their suits back on and there's a sequence in which Heathcliff searches for Cathy. Murray, or was it Thom, stands in the centre, the other three at corners of the room, and directs them in an outward-facing scream of longing: you're looking for her with hope, frustration, embarrassment, the agony of lost hope, the burning memory of someone you once loved, shame. Each time he adds a set of instructions to characterise their cries, one of them stops screaming and quietly watches him, knowing that he risks revealing more and more of himself. There is confusion here, and pain, and nothing in the way of answers, only a knowing that if we – not just men – don't name all these feelings, all the frustration, hope, embarrassment, agony, burning memories, shame, nothing can change.

Somewhere here I think they talk about what they want for the future. As men. As fathers. And the final words belong to the horse, still calm, still proud, understanding and accepting that his freedom from captivity will come with age, and death. For men, for us, it has to happen before then.

So no, Wuthering Heights isn't an adaptation: it's a multi-authored autobiography, a social study, an inquiry, an exorcism, a challenge, a howl of pain. And yes, I know Peter McMaster: we met a year ago by chance, when Dialogue was resident at BAC, and now I bring into his work an ongoing conversation with him that is sometimes light-hearted, sometimes intense, sometimes political, sometimes personal, always full of respect, admiration and trust. One strand of that conversation deals with his belief that there is a masculine responsibility not to rely on feminism to fix the modern world, which in effect places women in an impossible position, but for men to work together to address the malignity of masculinity, break it down, and find new ways of being, and being together, that are more androgynous, spiritual, conscious, that will wreak less havoc and injury. I caught echoes of those conversations in Wuthering Heights – but also sensed the private soul-searching conversations that had taken place between its performers, quiet admissions to each other that burnish the work, giving it a complexity of texture: distress and tenderness, rage and sympathy.

It wasn't Peter but the horse, Nick Anderson, who told me later that their Wuthering Heights is only possible because the four of them check in and out each day: sit together and ask each other how they are, confess emotional baggage rather than attempt to conceal it, sharing these burdens rather than expecting individuals to deal with them alone. The check-in/-out is central to Chris Goode and Co's work, too: it creates within Chris's rehearsal rooms and theatre places of understanding, listening, not-judging, that cherish openness, honesty, truth. These places make change possible. Healing possible.

*

The more I think about theatre as a place of healing, the more I realise that almost everything I've seen over the past year fits into this narrative. Perhaps it's the central narrative of all theatre. But I've already been writing this post for what feels like weeks: it has to end somewhere. Over that time, I saw two more stories of healing that felt different in some essential way to the ones mentioned above. Oxbow, Albemarle, The Worst and Wuthering Heights all wrench open the self to attempt a healing from the gut and the heart: Landscape II and The Events are more cerebral, journeys wrought by an omniscient author, that trace the arc of a character's progress from trauma towards healing. My response to both was less personal, more intellectual.

Appropriately enough, it took two goes at Landscape II for me to grasp it. Partly that's down to the subtlety of the work: it's a mark of how intricate and barely perceptible its gestures are that Melanie Wilson acknowledges her audience's presence, our active role in the room, by walking through the auditorium to the stage, then giving us a wisp of a smile and a five-degree nod of the head. Yet another aside: the further I get from the experience of sitting in the same room as her/this work, the more I connect Wilson with PJ Harvey – it's something to do with the way Landscape and Let England Shake are constructed with a painstaking attention to minute detail conveyed with the lightest of touch.


Partly my responses were conditioned by the circumstances of watching. The first time I was at the Lighthouse in Poole, with a small in number, slightly older audience, many of whom fidgeted throughout. I felt that discomfort, that boredom, that distance from the story, and to a degree shared it, because Wilson's delivery is slow, acoustically resonant but not emotionally so, soft and flat and requiring absolute focus and investment just to stay awake, let alone absorb and comprehend what she's saying. But I also resisted, because the story fascinated me. Wilson portrays a war photographer called Vivian, holed up in an isolated barnhouse in the North Devon moors, slowly encountering her great-great grandmother Beatrice (who stayed in the same house some 100 years previously) through a stash of brown crinkly diary-letters discovered in an upstairs room, and resisting the memory of another woman, Mina, whom she befriended in an unnamed country in a war zone in the Middle East, whose story she once had a responsibility to tell – a responsibility she feels she failed. It's a complicated tale, and Wilson recounts it with a soporific patience, shifting between landscapes, slipping between sheets of time, using a computer and a mixing desk to trigger her meticulous score and backdrop images, multiplying distractions. The sound design alone is extraordinary: a fascinating mixture of abstract and representational, the snarl of fox folding into the crackle of paper and the creak of wooden beams, the mulch of leaves, the static stab of memory, and always the electric buzz of atoms vibrating in the air. And the film – by Will Duke, incorporating images from the Beaford Old Archive – is gorgeous: sharp blue skies, wide expanses of land, intricately detailed photographs of plants, spider webs, rocks, the veins on hands, looked at with the curious intensity of a child. In Poole, it was too much: as when watching opera, I couldn't simultaneously take in the words, the visuals and the audio. (How brilliant that Wilson is working on an opera next: she's perfect for it.)

My second go was at the Lakeside in Colchester, with a bigger and more engaged audience, mostly comprising students, whose thrillingly mixed response I'm going to write about on the Fuel/New Theatre in YourNeighbourhood blog if I EVER get this stupid post finished. Their focus improved mine – but also I was better placed to focus: having already seen the visuals, I could hear the words more clearly. I even took notes, but I've since lost the scrap of paper they're written on: apologies to Melanie if I'm misquoting. I was particularly struck by the theory of photography: Vivian takes photographs to hear voices better, which seems so contrary, but then it's clear, later in the piece, that she's forcibly being silenced when her camera is removed from her. Vivian takes photographs to make those voices audible to a wider world: to bring women out of isolated communities and ensure that their existence is at the very least recorded (you only need to read the first paragraph of this report, by Unicef, to recognise how important that is). Photography here potentially stands in for all art: certainly I understood it as representing Wilson's own task in making Landscape II, her sense of duty towards other women, towards all humanity, when creating theatre. What is the difference between reading about Mina, the woman in the Middle East, in a newspaper, and encountering her in the theatre? How much more does her story resonate? What possibilities are created for feeling a sense of connection with her?

What Wilson does, with the delicacy of a spider spinning its web, is draw the lines of connection between Mina, Vivian, Vivian's great-great-grandmother Beatrice – and from them to herself and her audience. In one of the diary-letters, Vivian discovers an instruction from Beatrice's mother: the time Beatrice is spending in North Devon is her last moment of self-determination before she is to take up her role as a woman, as a wife and mother. A century later, Mina tells Vivian that she must have children, because children bring a woman her truest happiness, her truest role in life, and her truest hope for the future. Mina and Beatrice occupy the same cultural space in which women's lives are circumscribed and defined by their genetic procreativity. Vivian occupies a new cultural space, in which women have the freedom to choose non-gendered creativity instead. If Vivian falters when asked whether women have equality in her country, it's because she is aware how much work there is left to do, not least in questioning what we mean by equality and what value judgments are being utilised to measure that equality. Photography, art, theatre create spaces in which to ask those questions.

I took lots of forgotten notes about solitude, too: what it means to be alone, to isolate oneself. Beatrice's retreat from family, expectations, responsibilities, to the isolation of the moors is a gift; for Vivian, it's an escape from failure. Beatrice becomes an adventurer, an explorer of nature, takes long wild walks, scratches her initials into a wooden beam of the house – a modest mark to make on the world, but a mark none the less. Vivian timidly follows in her footsteps, spending long hours gazing out to sea, feeling rootless and lost. But it's through communing with the ghost of Beatrice, facing up to her memories of Mina, and nursing a wounded fox – the animal symbol of her wounded self – that Vivian finds equilibrium again, and finds her way back to the world. I completely missed the first time around the import of the final letter Vivian reads, an invitation to take on a new job. Her receptiveness to it is our signal that she has healed.

DavidGreig's The Events follows a similar trauma-to-healing trajectory. The woman, Claire, is a victim, and her victim-hood isolates her from society as effectively as if she had been the perpetrator of violence. It estranges her from her girlfriend, makes her bullying and impatient, prevents her relating to people, makes her contemplate suicide and murder. Her soul has left her: she felt it fly away, when a gun was pointed at herself and another woman and they were asked to choose who should be shot. More prosaically, she has lost all connection with the world.

Matt Trueman's review – so rigorous and penetrating I had to read it twice to comprehend it – has rendered most other commentary superfluous, even if you don't agree with his argument (I agree with 92% of it). But what's a blog for if not indulging superfluities. Like Matt, I'm caught by the conflict of art and violence in The Events, and to the possibility that the perpetrator of violence, The Boy, represents a majority view. I'd assumed he's quite young, but that's because I'm rubbish at history:

By the time he was my age Jesus had founded a world religion.
By the time he was my age Bob Geldof had saved Africa.
By the time he was my age Gavrilo Princip had fired the shot that started world war one.
If I'm going to make a mark on the world I have to do it now.
The only means I have are art or violence.
And I was never any good at drawing.

Princip was almost 20, Jesus was (probably) late-20s, Geldof at the time of Band Aid was 33, Live Aid 34. So let's say The Boy is 34. January 5, 2010, age 34, I woke up at 7am to the shattering realisation that everything I'd wanted to do for the past 10 years (minimum) still hadn't been done. The writing. The making. The staking a meaningful place in the world. What's interesting about The Boy – and this is particularly because Rudi Dharmalingam's performance is astonishing, casual yet hypnotic – is that he represents anything you might want to throw at him: he is every white supremacist who espouses fascism and every Islamist who follows al-Qaida/equivalent supremacist organisations, he is the Boston bombers and the killers of Lee Rigby and the men firing guns in a shopping mall in Kenya, he is the people who pick up rifles and shoot children, co-workers, strangers, in schools and workplaces and public spaces across the world. Within the specific world of the play he is, for Claire, The Boy's father, the politician whose ideology he shared, the journalist who popularised him, plus her psychiatrist, her partner, a man who stops her throwing herself off a cliff – Dharmalingam plays them all, modulating his voice and gestures minutely each time. The Boy is Everyman – Everyhuman. And that includes, potentially, us.

On the one hand, that's about art. I defy anyone who makes art in any capacity to say that they're not trying to leave a mark on the world. We're so embarrassed by ambition, by ego, most of all by the fear of being caught out, that we pull a curtain of self-deprecation over everything we do – but the ambition and ego are there all the same. The arrogance and self-belief, that others, even one other person, should pay attention to the things we write or make or draw or dance. It's a wonder more art doesn't get called self-indulgent.

On the other, that's about violence. The first time he speaks, The Boy tells a story about an “aboriginal boy” seeing three ships approach his land from England, carrying “class and religion and disease and a multitude of other instruments of objectification and violence, all of which are about to be unleashed upon his people”. The Boy thinks the people on the ships should all be killed. Claire sees the positive side: isn't it just possible, she muses, that the aboriginal boy might think, “Thank fuck something interesting has finally happened round here.” Well, yes, that's possible. But who is more persuasive in their thinking: Claire? Or The Boy?

Greig underscores the terrifying notion that we all carry The Boy – or at least, an incomprehensible “thing of darkness” – within us when Claire uses exactly the same words at the end of The Events to address the audience as she used to greet The Boy at the beginning, to welcome him to the community choir that she runs in her tiny parish church in a nowhere corner of Scotland, and invite him to join in. It wasn't until talking to the as ever brilliant Young Vic/TwoBoroughs Theatre Club discussion group that I was able to articulate the levels of fiction and reality I'd seen in The Events. Claire and The Boy occupy a fictional space; the community choir sharing the stage with them are the mirror of the audience in the real world; in the bridging space between are the stage manager and the repetiteur. Claire's healing journey takes her from a place of isolation within the fictional space – at the beginning she stands on the side, truculent and cold, separated from the choir and from the audience, unable to make eye contact with anyone – across the bridge into the real world that we occupy with the choir, a gap now closed by their movement forward until they might shake hands with the front row. What heals her is the understanding that she will never comprehend violence in other people – but she can reject it within herself. To act with compassion is the best we can do.

I saw The Events twice, too: in Edinburgh with (I think) the Soweto Melodic Voices choir (the Soweto bit of that is right, even if nothing else is) and at the Young Vic with the Greenwich Soul Choir. I preferred it the first time, for the simple reason that the choir all had black skin and different accents to the actors; in London most of them were white and talked as though presenting the Today programme. It makes a difference to the play's advocacy of multiculturalism, of multiple tribes living side by side, when Dharmalingam isn't the darkest-skinned person on stage. Both times, I felt invigorated by the argument, excited, alarmed, impressed – but it wasn't until the very last moments that something emotional in me moved. “And we're all here,” the choir sing, locking eyes with their audience, “we're all in here.” I know it's not real, the togetherness: it's transitory, a fiction almost. But I believe in its potential – to articulate hard truths, create the possibility of change, to heal. And I find that tremblingly beautiful.

*

It's weirdly passive to commit gentrification, even though the consequence is brutal. It feels safe to be like others, and frightening to be one's self – because that requires knowing what one's true self is – and not in a New Agey sense where anything one “feels” (a euphemism for wants) is right. But in a truthful sense, to see one's dark side and conflicts and in that way, realise one's self as human. Not as an excuse to not change, but as a starting point for change.”
Sarah Shulman, The Gentrification of the Mind, p177-8