Monday, 28 January 2013

the sum of chance encounters

[It seems I'm not able to write about Chris Goode and Company's Open House except at several months' distance. I've spent snow-chilled January dreaming myself back into the heat flare of May 2012, and a room in Bristol where magic quietly took place. This picks up a story thread from an earlier post, How You Do This Is Up To You, which talked about the first Open House at the West Yorkshire Playhouse's Transform festival, 2011. As ever, all gratefulness to the participants in Open House Mayfest for their trust and patience: Chris, Angela, Tom, Pauline, James, Heather, and Robert, whose surname I never found out, whose illustrations were enviably good, whose leap into the unknown filled me with admiration.]

Let's start again with the room. A long, thin rectangle on the second floor of Hamilton House, a community centre in the middle of Stokes Croft, an enticingly anarchic street in Bristol lined with derelict squats, hipster coffee shops, anti-capitalist ventures and elaborate graffiti. Windows stretch two-thirds of the way along one wall, making the room bright and warm in the heavy May heatwave, noisy with traffic and indistinct chatter from the cafe tables below. A silken red evening dress hangs at one of the windows. Much of the opposite wall is glass, too, but that's opaque, blacked out by curtains in the corridor outside. The room extends in neatly demarcated zones: an admin space with imposing, cluttered wooden desk and a tea table offering biscuits; a carpeted section, over which creep jagged lines of masking tape; a large square laid with black plastic dance mats; at the furthest end a stage, not raised, defined instead by a lighting rig that looms pointedly over motley pieces of dumped furniture.

It had taken the organisers of Mayfest 2012 a while to find a suitable room for the second incarnation of Chris Goode and Company's participatory work Open House. Hamilton House was a thoughtful choice politically (their website explains why), but the insinuating presence of that stage betrayed a certain misapprehension. Open House is an experiment in foregrounding much that is implied, assumed or ignored in theatre-making: that theatre isn't a product but an ongoing process, a collaboration between people in a particular space and time, a reflection of life and the living of it. There are intermediary showings and a final performance, but these aren't staged events so much as staging posts in a journey: a journey without end.

The time will come when I spend the full five days watching Open House unfold – which isn't so much watching as participating in a quiet way – but I'm not there yet. I joined Chris and co a little after midday on day three – Wednesday 23 May, 2012 – and instantly felt the difference between this Open House and the first, programmed within the 2011 Transform festival at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. The mood of the room was lighter, less charged, buoyant with laughter. I spent a long time wondering what caused that change. The summery atmosphere? The windows that encouraged voyeurism? The levity of being peripheral to the rest of Mayfest, outsiders unbound? The giddy pleasure of work that feels like play, in an atmosphere of mutual respect?

All of those, plus this: in the Bristol cast, women and men were equally balanced, with Chris and two returnees from the all-male Leeds team, Tom Frankland and James Lewis, sharing the space with Angela Clerkin (who works regularly with Improbable), Heather Uprichard (a founder member of Shunt), and Pauline Mayers, a dancer and choreographer who went to the Leeds Open House as a curious outsider and has been a key collaborator with Chris Goode and Company ever since. And this: the Bristol cast were a more irreverent lot than the Leeds team, not more playful necessarily, just less inclined to meticulous theoretical debate. In Leeds, there was a lot of electric talk about the performance being alive to the moment, in a “constant state of jam”. In Bristol, in a prominent position on the desk, was a jar of strawberry jam. That's how different the two rooms were.

The other key difference was the relative absence of other people. There were visitors, one of whom, a grey-haired, smiling man called Robert, became a key contributor, but nothing like the flow of festival volunteers, theatre members and not-involved-but-intrigued figures that filled the space in Leeds. Without this traffic, the pressure towards activity, into which visitors could be drawn, was removed.

This concentration of numbers, plus the fact that the three actor-maker-performers (Tom, Angela and Heather) are all people who feel comfortable creating and playing characters, plus the nudge to voyeurism (the windows) and narrative storytelling (the stage) suggested by the room, combined to shape the work I saw made on my first day.

Their first day, Monday 21st, started with a show and tell: Chris had asked everyone to bring in an item that was important to them, which might hold the beginnings of ideas. Beside the red silk dress on the window ledge was a wooden circle with geometric lines carved into it, an elegant example of a tree of life; there was also a library book, Last Night on Earth by choreographer and director Bill T Jones, a small crimson cushion embroidered with the words Kneel to Pray, and a painted wooden spoon who goes by the name of Mr Curry. There was also something I couldn't see: a susurration. Shhh: listen. A whisper, a breath. “Is that the sound of extinction?” someone had written on the opposite wall.

By lunchtime on Wednesday, these items – with the possible exception of Mr Curry – had inspired something approaching a story. It had characters: a man, possibly dead now, whose life's work had been the cataloguing of extinct species; a woman who worked in the building across the street from Hamilton House, an artist probably, who spends her days cataloguing the life she sees from her window; another woman, glimpsed in the street wearing a red silk dress, a mystery with whom both the other characters are obsessed. It had questions: what is the relationship between the man and the artist? What does the woman in the red dress represent for them both? And within these tentative foundations of a narrative structure it had a multitude of set-pieces: a communal dance and a choral dream shanty; a comical index of fictional creatures; some absorbing texts on lies and dreams; a desire to hear an inventory spoken; and a non-religious response to the invitation Kneel to Pray.

There was something rather lovely about the impulse towards catalogues, indexes and inventories in this, because while the performers worked together to develop the materials for the showing that evening, I was busy cataloguing their working space. This is an abbreviation:

*a masking tape path, mimicking the sharp geometry of the tree of life, messages scribbled along each line:
(a change of heart) (a mending of ways) a chance for redemption
will I ever stop being afraid?
if I keep waiting, maybe it will get better?
a new journey?
an old dream?
a chance to change?
*details of extinct animals linked with string to a 1931 map of Land's End
*a chart recording the height of everyone who enters the room
*ink drawings by Robert, dream visions of woodland, the Open House room, a mysterious figure in a red dress
*two posters inviting contributions: tell a lie about yourself/tell us something true about yourself. While I'm making my notes a woman comes in, browses for a few minutes, writes on the lies poster, “I truly know love”, then walks straight out.
*Robert's truth: My life has in part been a project of reinvention and of constructing a world uncontaminated by my father's approval.
*Angela's truth: I let the flow of life happen. I have met amazing and unusual people when I have swum against the tide.
*a text inspired by the tree of life – “Follow the line. The line forks... The line flows and races. The points it passes through are each a present and each present has length for one end is joined to the past and the other to the future or possible futures... What happens at the end of the line?” – paired with Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken.
*hula hoops in red, blue, yellow and green
*a table spread with photographs of each performer wearing the red dress. James looks like a brothel Jesus.
*behind the desk, written on an A3 sheet: I'd like to see the shadow of a bird in the road but not the bird that's casting it.
*a yellow Post-It note stuck to the window with a single word scribbled upon it in pencil: JUMP?

In another unintended mirror of the burgeoning narrative – the man is so engrossed in cataloguing the world around him, he neglects his own family – I'm so absorbed by the task of noting every detail in the room that I almost miss it being transformed. Tom, feeling his way towards playing the man, takes charge in creating an environment for him in the stage area. He clears away the superfluous furniture, arranges a desk, a sofa, a cabinet and a coffee table, and upon these places the paraphernalia of the man's existence: his index cards, a plant, a trumpet, a wireless. This is one story space; outside the window is another; in between, a clear zone for dance, improvisation, collaboration with the audience.

As in Leeds last year, the seven company members – Robert had been fully adopted to the team by now – gathered in the late afternoon to create a set list, putting in order the disparate elements for their showing. Unlike in Leeds, almost no one came to see it: just four of us, and two of those were me and Nikki, working with Mayfest and there to give Chris and company production support. There was much that was enjoyable, beautiful, invigorating in this showing. I loved the layering of composed and immediate/responsive texts: Angela observing life out of the window while Heather walks towards the building in the red dress and Heather's disembodied recorded voice tells a lie about jumping from the window and soaring over the city. Pauline folding and stretching into taut, eloquent shapes, Angela describing her movements, James alone then Chris in urgent chorus reading out the Follow the Line/tree of life text. I loved the communal dance, and how the audience stuck faithfully to Pauline's voiceover instructions, even as the performers embarked on a different dance, raising questions of who we choose to follow, when and how, suggesting the difficulty of keeping up with or adapting to the unexpected changes inevitable in a fast-paced life. I loved the wistful poetry of the inventory of the contents of the Marie Celeste. Most of all I loved the Kneel to Pray cushion, and the invitation drawn from it to say something true, all of us taking turns to speak honestly from our own lives. Pauline's truth: “I want to stay with the people in this room for at least a month.” Yes.

In Leeds the first showing was so complete, as a work and as a statement, that it felt like an ending. In Bristol the first showing felt like a beginning. There was much in it that didn't really work, not least the characters of the cataloguer and artist, the latter of whom barely emerged, the relationship between them remaining opaque. The descriptions of extinct animals tickled everyone but, as Chris acknowledged, they felt like they belonged to a different show.

In fact, although we left the room that evening energised and enthused, by morning everyone expressed doubts about the showing. The tight structure had been useful in terms of avoiding the sense of chaos that hovered over Open House Leeds, but it also closed down or thwarted possibility, leaving the performers with little room to play. The narrative they were building, said Chris, felt too much like a story that could be made in other circumstances, more traditional circumstances, and made better in five weeks, not five days. It didn't suit the unique proposition of Open House – and it was the kind of show Chris hadn't made for years.

As a group we agreed that the most exciting aspects of the showing had been the things that least resembled the prepared material. Moments of intimacy, of talking and responding to each other; moments receptive to chance, in which small ideas could thrillingly expand; moments unique to that time, that room, that grew from observing directly the world outside. Chris realised that he had conflated a relish in the process of creation with the creation of things (characters, narrative) that indicate craft. He wanted to make something more porous. He also wanted to leave the room.

This was a difficult proposal for the team to negotiate, because it came from a place of disillusionment not with Open House as an idea but with the impossibility of fully expressing that idea without the people for whom it was created: the, for want of a better word, audience. Chris wanted to find a park, a local square, anywhere outside, and make up a game that could be played with passers-by. After much tussling with pros and cons, the dissuading argument was voiced by Tom: “The challenge is, we're in this place: what can we do here?” What did Chris want that he felt he could find in the park? Light and air. Half the room had that at least. So what were the constraints of the room – and how might they be resolved? How, by rethinking the room, could they take control of the space? These questions would direct the morning's work.

First, though, Chris made two decisions that would prove vital and vitalising. One: that they would throw out most of the narrative material built up over the week and start again. Two: in response to a confession from Angela, that she had hardly breathed during the showing, so anxious had she been about forgetting what was next on the set list, Chris announced that whatever they did that evening, there wouldn't be a running order on a flip chart. Music would help to give a dramaturgical shape to the showing, and each performer would be free to respond to that and to each other with whatever materials felt appropriate and closest to hand. In the impish code of Open House, the aim was more jam, less bread.

With that, they set to work. Chris felt it would be interesting, if questionable ethically – we'll come back to that – to record and project a film of the street scene below. Jamie positioned the screen directly at the end of the row of windows, introducing light and extending the view to outside. Then he and Tom set about reconfiguring the space. The dance mats were shifted: instead of a square chunk in front of the stage, a long, thin rectangle running alongside the windows. From a tunnel with defined zones, the room became panoramic. The stage area was cleared again, furniture and clutter pushed against the walls. The crimson sofa remained, and this became the focus for an afternoon game: a dance created by Pauline for herself, Tom, Angela and Robert to perform, with four strategic positions, seated, perched, standing and reclining. As they accustomed to the moves, the players began to incorporate an element of storytelling, first using Consequences, each taking it in turns to add a line to a growing tall tale. But this proved cumbersome and overcomplicated. Chris suggested shifting “say something true” from the Kneel to Pray cushion to the arm of the sofa. Better. Tom requested a round of “tell a lie”: good, but a verve was missing, an outlandishness. What would be really exciting, said Chris, eyes glinting, would be for this to be the sofa of truth and lies – and for us not know which is which. Perfect.

Except for one thing: unlike the Kneel to Pray truth game, audiences couldn't join in – the speed and precision of the dance left no room for intrusion. The extent to which the invitation to visitors had shrunk became apparent when Kieran Hurley and Gary McNair, performing elsewhere in Mayfest, visited for an hour in the late-afternoon. We've forgotten how to be generous, Chris feared.

Instead of playing, Kieran and Gary became snagged in philosophical debate. A new film had been recorded through the window, of Heather walking down the street in the red dress, and Chris invited us to invent stories about the people she passed. But as we began to speculate on existential crises, fraud and dreadful accidents, he felt misgivings: that to impose a narrative on a stranger, with its undertone of prediction or twisting of fate, was in some way unethical; that the film itself, taken in secret, sinister as CCTV, was unethical too. But no, the company variously argued: the commentary says more about the speaker than the person being seen; these narratives were simply an exercise in imagination; the figures on the film were so small they could hardly be identified. The exercise stayed – on condition, said Chris, that we played in a kind way, combating the heartless invasion of CCTV with lyricism, humanity and warmth.

(For the rest of the day, the words “ethical problem” were a cheeky running joke.)

As the time for the second showing approached and nerves kicked in, a mild tension arose among the performers: perhaps there could be a running order after all? Chris remained gentle but adamant. He reassured them: they wouldn't be working by wits alone, but following basic rules of engagement that would allow jam to flow freely. (That is absolutely what it says in my notebook. I suspect Chris also said it another way but in my wisdom [cough] I didn't record that bit.) They could talk to each other about what might happen next, and to the audience, too. If there was a movement, a text, an idea or texture they liked, the invitation was open at all times for them to do it, say it, introduce it. They simply needed to remember the key pieces and notice where the room was going. No set list. No running order. That one key decision was all it took to unlock possibility and make the second showing electric.

This, very roughly, because I couldn't take all of the notes and do all of the watching, is how it played out:

Angela and Pauline dance together; Tom sits on a table outside describing – we hear him through James' mobile phone – what he sees on the street, what we witness through the window.
and I think about how we look at the world, and how we record what we see
Observations from a post at the window now, Robert drawing the scene on the glass itself, and while Chris plays piano, James starts listing the things he would like to see out there.
just then, a chorus of happy birthday floats in from the cafe downstairs, and the world outside and the world of Open House fuse
Pauline begins dancing, Angela describing her dance, Tom and Heather trace the outlines of their bodies on the floor, and Chris begins to read: “Follow the line. The line forks...”
and the melancholy lilt of the piano and James' dream list carries into Pauline's body, making her movement seem more pained, more anxious, than anything she's danced through the day
Pauline moves to the truth and lies sofa; hesitantly, the others join her. A pause to establish rhythm and then:
Robert: I once killed a man
Heather: I find it hard to tell the truth
Tom: I'm not a man
Pauline: I once ate a frog
Angela: I have a dog
what do we even know about people? Their secrets? How can we know “truth”? How can we distinguish?
While the sofa dance continues, James invites the audience to take part in the communal dance...
and there's something about the way he does this, so eager, so diffident; something about the fact that the designated technician can switch roles in this way, that they all merge roles, Tom directing and designing, Angela choreographing, all of them writing; something about their boundless energy and embrace of cooperation, that is so touching to witness
… and then: CCTV.
Pauline: this person came to a dance class I once taught.
Angela: this man was just told he's lost his job.
Me: [pointing at a woman pushing a pram] she's wondering if she should have kept the baby.
what do we even know about people? We know stories. The snippets of autobiography they're willing to share with us, the yarns we spin around them.
And something I didn't acknowledge until reading Angela's blog post for the Mayfest diary: in telling stories about others, we give away our selves...
Chris reads a text I haven't heard before:
this is our time
after all the struggle, the pain, the breathing deeply...
we are the sum of chance encounters
Heather returns to the window for a new round of observations.
we are the sum of chance encounters. The readiness is all. And how much, how much we see, when we only stop to look
Angela begins listing them in chalk on the floor.
**the piece of theatre that could only happen now, of this moment**
Pauline is dancing. Angela is dancing. We can hear James on the phone, reading out the Marie Celeste inventory. And suddenly there, walking up the street, boldly, a vision from a dream, is Tom, wearing the red dress.
and the world is too much, too detailed, too full to take in

The next day, in a state of exhilaration, I scribbled this in my notebook:
what made it so magical was how it flowed without flowing, felt coherent despite its leaps from one set piece to the next, how open it felt for them to improvise while keeping within the parameters set for themselves earlier, how the showing was infused with all the stories and all the life that had come into the room, how it contained story without story and narrative without narrative, how it relied on trust between the performers and achieved alchemical transformation of the elements that all the best theatre is capable of

By the time I wrote that breathless note to myself I had left Open House behind. I left on a high, thrilled that I had seen such extraordinary, eloquent, surprising work. In less than an hour, through game playing and sharing trust and feeling their way, those seven people had communicated so much about how we relate to each other, talk to each other, talk of each other. But also I left on a low: where was everybody? The audience barely reached double figures for the Thursday showing. Why had there been so few visitors; why were the evening numbers so small? Chris and I discussed this on the Thursday: in Leeds, there was a strong sense that Open House was needed, important, a signpost for a possible future; at Mayfest, it was just another intriguing piece in a fascinating programme. In Leeds, Open House was in the same building with other work; people could wander in and out without having to make a special or effortful detour to the room: that opportunity wasn't there at Mayfest. Did it matter? We decided that in the truest sense, not at all: Robert was there, integral, happy, contributing, invigorated. To be able to affect just one person's life, help them construct a world uncontaminated by another's approval, gift them the opportunity to swim against the tide: to do that for one person is enough.

What troubled me then, and continues to ache in me now, however, is a terrible sense of bungled responsibility: that what I had written about the Leeds Open House had in any way stopped people coming in Bristol. That perhaps I had given wrong impressions, created apprehensions. That the memory I had imprinted of one quashed the life of the other. All that remains of these Open Houses are the stories that are told. And while I know, rationally, that there are no “true” stories, still I want the ones I tell to be right.

*

A postscript: I've spent a couple of days dithering about posting this, and I'm glad I did, because I in the midst of that hesitation I finished reading Borges' Dreamtigers and found this bit of brilliance that articulates precisely what I think this Open House did:

At times in the afternoons a face
Looks at us from the depths of a mirror;
Art must be like that mirror
That reveals to us this face of ours.

They tell how Ulysses, glutted with wonders,
Wept with love to descry his Ithaca
Humble and green. Art is that Ithaca
Of green eternity, not of wonders.

I cherish that word humble, as I cherish my time in Open House.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

shunt's the architects: an exorcism

Here are some things I don't do:

I don't look at the Daily Mail, even just to be able to berate the contents of the Daily Mail.

I don't read newspaper reports of war or violence or rapes, and avoid listening to more than an hour of the Today programme because it fills me with despair. (The despair threshold used to be 10 minutes.)

I don't watch political discussions on TV or listen to them on the radio.

I don't listen to Any Questions or any other current affairs talk radio.

I don't engage with celebrity culture.

I don't watch reality TV.

I don't think I'm in any way a superior person for not doing these things. If anything, this failure to engage with the media that surrounds me exacerbates my already pronounced naivety and exposes me for what I am, a gauche idealist with scant compass on the real world. But it's a choice I make to be able to function in that world. To be able to live without despising other people. To be able to believe in the capacity of human beings not simply to survive catastrophe but to create good.
Wonder -- is not precisely Knowing
And not precisely Knowing not --
A beautiful but bleak condition
He has not lived who has not felt --
Tonight, watching Shunt's TheArchitects, I spent 15 minutes essentially doing all those things I choose not to do, all at once. It happened like this. There are four characters, lower class in the old way of ranking people – grotesquely boorish, charmless and coarse – but upper class in the modern hierarchy governed by money. They are obscenely rich, but apparently generous, because they have invited us to take the trip of a lifetime on board a luxury cruise liner, where our every whim will be amply catered for. Why wouldn't we want to enjoy this opportunity? As they themselves say, we've worked for it: we deserve it.

Of course the ship starts sinking. Money corrupts, money corrodes. Money, you might say, is a beast we can't control, a beast whose form is mysterious and terrifying. A beast to whom we are ritually sacrificing our children, as the king of Crete once fed children to the minotaur. We watch these children struggling to lift themselves beyond its grasp – quite literally: they are played by aerialists – but one by one they plunge into money's abyss. And we do nothing. Because what can we do? How can we change this all-pervasive system?

And then we look up, and see the four characters again, raised above our heads, leering down. They don't care. They carry on indulging themselves as if it never happened, and we watch with amused fascination that, as the spectacle continues on and on and on, becomes a sickening voyeurism that is as culpable as the indulgence it gorges on. Do we carry on watching because they provide a spectacle? Or do they continue to provide the spectacle because we're watching? As the minutes tick painfully past, does their confrontation mutate into desperation, a longing for it to end? Why don't we cry, Enough!, and turn away?
Suspense -- is his maturer Sister --
Whether Adult Delight is Pain
Or of itself a new misgiving --
This is the Gnat that mangles men –
I went into The Architects with two things: a determination to see the best in it, because although I hadn't read any reviews I had seen the swirl of argument about it on twitter following press night and knew it split opinion; and a dim memory of skimming through Catherine Love's essay on audience agency/entrapment. It's been interesting revisiting that essay, and reading through Matt Trueman's writing pre- and post- press night, because they both found the final tableau underwhelming, whereas for me it transformed the show from what had felt like an entertaining but slightly toothless satire on luxury and greed, into something much more powerful, vehement, challenging and disturbing. I watched that tableau for its protracted and agonising entirety, willing it to stop but refusing to give in, and felt utterly filthy for doing so, because I knew my presence made its continuation possible. As I watched, I thought about all the media I reject, and wondered whether rejection is good enough, whether it's better to know the enemy than dwell in uninformed assumption, whether I distract myself by abhorring the messenger from taking proper issue with the message. It's a matter of responsibility: of accepting responsibility for the world we create. A world in which money is more important than people, in which the primary financial system is one that demands the ritual and frequent sacrifice of, if not lives, at least livelihoods. And who knows, maybe I read the show this way only because earlier on today I'd been thinking about the contradiction of my life, whereby I'm clearly some kind of bloody Marxist now (and when I say bloody, what I perhaps mean is instinctive-but-undereducated), yet I live in London where even to own a house is to contribute to appalling inequality, but it does seem to me that if The Architects is as much about choice as Matt and Catherine (and, for that matter, Shunt member David Rosenberg) say it is, then it's about the choices we make to do with money: to have more than we need, to indulge a warped sense of our own “value”, to believe we deserve more than others because we work so hard.

I left The Architects with nausea in my throat, a rock in my stomach and my brain in a fever of horror. Writing this, I want to return to the long speech one of the architects who run the cruise liner makes at the beginning of the show, about wonder (particularly as expressed in the Emily Dickinson poem above) and the optimism of architecture, its fusion of past achievement with dreams of a better, brighter future, because it was so uplifting – but that vision is tainted now, too, because what does architecture need if hope is to become reality? Money, money, money.

And even my own relationship and response to the show feel tainted, because I was given a free ticket, and that opens the door to a labyrinth of questions. Would I feel differently about it if I'd paid? What effect does money have on the way we watch art? Why do I “deserve” a free ticket, when others who have written about the show bought theirs? Aren't I helping to maintain a microcosm of inequality? And where does that leave my high-and-mighty politics?

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

some flotsam, some jetsam

If there were more time, I'd write...

about walking on Christmas day in an outskirt of Oxford, seeing fields flooded with rainwater, lapping with quiet tides, stealthily creeping over the path behind our backs; temporary lakes incongruously demarcated by twisted wire fences and the wooden posts of submerged stiles, across which a couple in a canoe calmly rowed, coaxing along a wooden picnic table that had overturned and floated away...

and seeing Orion through the windscreen of the car, pointing the way back to London; listening to Hadestown, marvelling again at its tenderness and anger; thinking lovingly of Little Bulb and the Orpheus show they're making; now and then catching the snuffling snores of the smallest and looking back to see the biggest gazing out of the window, beginning Motor Vehicle Sundown in her own time...

about seeing Elizabeth Price's The Woolworths Choir of 1979 for the first time knowing nothing about it, with a friend who remembered news of the fire from tiny childhood and my son who protested at the sharp jabs of the soundtrack's clicks and claps, not quite knowing what I was seeing but mesmerised, unable to leave; and returning a few weeks later, for a second watch alone and a third with both children, the kids this time as rapt as me, feeling as though I was inducting them into some mysterious cult, because when I watch those dancing girls (we are chorus, we are trefoil, we are quire – but it could read queer – WE KNOW) I swear they're communicating some dark secret truth about women and sex and the fire at the heart of the earth and the universe...




If I could only figure out how, I'd write about the Two Boroughs Theatre Club at the Young Vic, which I've been collaborating on since September and is my favourite interaction with theatre criticism: the Dialogue dream – of discussion that is accessible, respectful, informative, thorough, which opens up the work in unexpected ways – made real. I was disappointed when the club on The Changeling was cancelled last-minute (too close to Christmas): it was a mixed bag of a production and I was super-excited about thrashing it out with people who go to the theatre for... what? Different reasons, of course: because it's there, being given to them for free, and because they're curious, and because theatre gives them something visceral that the TV doesn't. Deliciously, many of the people I've met there are as addicted to theatre as I am: they're just more restrained when it comes to spouting off about it...

and Dialogue itself, and the weird, intense, brilliant week Jake Orr and I spent at the National Theatre Studio: weird because we were (unexpectedly) paid, and it's the first money we've made with this project, and there was something so pompously noble about doing it altruistically and for free; intense because we worked and talked and thought hard, weeks of activity crammed into five too-short days, interspersed with passionate conversations full of encouragement and enthusiasm for our argument (link coming with a record of all this); brilliant because we finally finished collating everything for the BAC project, which felt long overdue, but that was weird too, because I suddenly realised, with appalling intensity, that the writing I had done for it was somehow all wrong*, tonally all wrong, that I need to find the voice for Dialogue writing the same way I must continually, for each editor, find the voice for the Guardian, the same way I am working towards the voice for writing about Chris Goode and Company, the same way I occasionally find the voice for here...

[*since writing that I've read this in Dreamtigers by Borges, which more precisely articulates that feeling of wrongness:

As I sleep, some dream beguiles me, and suddenly I know I am dreaming. Then I think: this is a dream, a pure diversion of my will; and now that I have unlimited power, I am going to cause a tiger.

Oh, incompetence! Never can my dreams engender the wild beast I long for. The tiger indeed appears, but stuffed or flimsy, or with impure variations of shape, or of an implausible size, or all too fleeting, or with a touch of the dog or the bird.]


If I'd had more time a month ago, I'd have finished writing something I'd started on the Radar Platform on criticism at the Bush, an invigorating event in which Sean Holmes of the Lyric Hammersmith talked inspiringly about a realisation that struck him post-Three Kingdoms: that people are hungry for different theatre, theatre that challenges and surprises and even confuses them, and they don't really care what the reviews say, they will come if it's offered. But they're not being offered it because artistic directors are not being brave. I've thought about his speech a lot in the past few days, although for a disconnected reason: I've been kicking off about the Royal Court again (and, less venomously, the National, because of Curious Incident and The Effect), this time for not being bolder with main-space programming, locking writers of new work into the tiny upstairs space (and thus denying that space to others, with whom they might be taking a genuine risk), fuelling the accusations of elitism hurled at theatre by chasing the buzz of a sold-out show. Mostly I subscribe to the Andy Field argument against bigness, agreeing that the relentless quest for expansion in theatre replicates capitalism's drive for unlimited growth and all the hierarchies implicit in that – but the Court shows none of Andy's passion for or belief in the small, and in fact, with its hotline to the West End, follows precisely the trajectory that Andy rejects. Mostly I understand that some new plays are fragile, and some need time to find their feet, and some benefit from the proximity and concentration of the smaller space – but the Court rarely shows evidence of programming its upstairs room with those things in mind. Instead, it behaves cynically and without courage, and holds a position of such power and influence that it encourages others to do the same.

I'd have written, too, about how much I loved Ramin Gray's speech at the same event, which also lamented theatre's capitalist trajectory, and argued that mainstream (and particularly star-rated) criticism fuels it by writing about plays as commodities, hot news items, disposable entertainments, rather than nourishment for the soul. I'm of an age now, he said, where I'm not afraid to talk about spirituality out loud – and I felt my heart flip, because increasingly I want to talk about the “value” of theatre in spiritual terms but still find myself wary of the word. But it's there when I think about the difference between feeling and understanding a piece of theatre, an intellectual response and an emotional response – thinking sharpened that specific mid-November week by two shows.

One was Ramin's own production of Ivan Viripaev's Illusions, a crafty portrait of two marriages, and everything impossible to know within them, that made a couple of people who saw it the same night as me angry, because (they felt) no attempt had been made to solve the challenge of staging it as theatre. Sure enough, once the icy thrill of the first few pages of text abated, I momentarily wondered why I wasn't listening to Illusions on the radio – but figured that that way crossness lay, and basking in the twisty-turny stomach-churny feeling of it was going to give me more.

The other was Christopher Haydon's production of The Trojan Women, a show I'd invested lots in seeing (in that seeing it meant I never got to see Mike Bartlett's Medea or Stella Duffy's production of Ordinary Darkness, and almost missed out on Sight Is the Sense), but which, for reasons I found hard to fathom, barely moved me. There are all sorts of incidentals I want to blame: my own tiredness and the enormous efforts I had to make simply to stay awake; the woman directly opposite me actually sleeping through much of the show; the audience members to my right who looked bored; the students behind me whispering and rustling throughout – although that did inspire my very favourite moment, Dearbhla Molloy's Hecuba turning to them with finger to lips and twinkle in eye to shush them. But other people there the same night managed to filter those things out. And there was much I felt I couldn't blame: Caroline Bird's frequently clever translation; the incisive comedy; the fierce performances; the complex power politics between the three women and the men attempting to control them; the savage final moments when the baby is torn from the chorus; the video of the gods, which others felt was glib, but to me conveyed the terrible power beneath the gods' grotesque absurdity. At one point I had a thought that always irritates me when I hear it in my head: how differently would I be feeling if a woman had directed this? But that's poor thinking on my part. More useful to wonder if my problem was with the cerebral cool of the production. I left wondering why we do this: why we spend our nights in the theatre, in London a place of some privilege, distantly contemplating war and savagery and patriarchy's crushing of the human spirit, when these things are actually happening in the world and maybe we should be more actively participating to challenge them? Partly that thought came from a sense of guilt: much of that week was spent watching people on twitter raging about violence in Gaza (and, it feels slightly bathetic to add, about proposed cuts to the arts in Newcastle), and feeling pathetic and ineffectual for my failure to do anything, even just join the angry soundbite conversation. But guilt is a waste of emotion. And it wasn't really that: what I apprehended in The Trojan Women was the difference between a contemplation of war and savagery as an intellectual exercise, and feeling that savagery in your heart and bowels – spiritually, in a word. That's how Lucy Ellinson played the Chorus: watching her, I could feel not only the anger of her character but Lucy's own fury, the fury she had been expressing on twitter, about Gaza in particular, the fury of the powerless who know that to speak is to act is to move incrementally towards change. In Lucy's performance I could feel life and theatre and galvanised political action enmeshed. That was what I wanted from all of The Trojan Women. That is why we do this.


And now it's 2013, a year I saw in on Salisbury Crags, first at midnight, marvelling at the moonlight shadows (and yes, I did have the Mike Oldfield song in my head, certain it was by Fleetwood Mac), shivering with bliss at the sight of Orion and the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia beaming above and fireworks dancing across the horizon; and again later that afternoon, straggling behind the others with my smallest, marvelling at his strength and silliness and charm, not needing anyone else. This is the year he starts school, and I try not to wish away the months, but I'm so impatient, not just for writing or any of the other selfish pursuits (and the less time I spend sewing, the more sorry my wardrobe looks), but the changing-the-world, the small-scale stuff Josie Long challenged us all to do in Romance and Adventure, a bittersweet show with a trenchant heart that I just about caught at BAC, the lo-fi activism, or action, that demands a rethink of how you apportion your time.

Time time time. One of the most appealing conceits in all literature is the time turner in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban that allows Hermione Granger to sit twice as many exams as anyone else. I'd use mine to live multiple lives. I'm no sci-fi reader and my knowledge of physics is less than rudimentary, but the notion of parallel universes has loomed large in my over-romantic imagination for decades. When I interviewed Nick Payne for G2, I wanted to play a game with him, where we told each other of the lives we live in parallel universes. Sitting down opposite this kindly regular guy in a grey suit with glasses, I chickened out: it felt too appallingly personal. I have so many, some more disturbing than others: the one where I'm a fashion designer and the one where I'm a painter and the one where I moved to New York at the age of 22; the one where I never married, the one where the love wasn't unrequited, the one where I'm divorced. The one where the car accident was fatal; the four where I simply gave up.
The basic laws of physics don't have a past and a present. Time is irrelevant at the level of atoms and molecules. It's symmetrical.
We have all the time we've always had.
You'll still have all our time.
There's not going to be any more or less of it.
What I realised watching Constellations for the second time – and it was so much better in the West End, the suicide strand less bludgeoning, the whole thing sharper and more electric – is that in all my parallel universes I do something else, and because of that I am someone else. The genius at the core of Constellations is that the opposite is true: whatever happens between those two characters, they are always the same characters, with the same jobs, the same awkwardnesses, the same bad jokes and propensity to embarrass themselves, fucking up in all the same ways. Payne is entirely unsentimental: there is nowhere perfect. Mistakes and sorrow are everywhere, and every life ends in death. I love him for that.


In the past few weeks I've felt as though I've given myself a magic gift of extra time, simply by abandoning Iris Murdoch's The Sea, the Sea on page 152 (of seemingly millions) and reading other books instead. The Sea, the Sea is clearly brilliant: the writing mimics the sea itself, its inexorability, its inscrutability, its scintillating beauty. But oh god is the book's narrator annoying. A theatre director renowned for his productions of Shakespeare, a former actor, an incorrigible, self-obsessed womaniser, he made me think so acutely of Trevor Nunn (not that I've ever, you know, met Trevor Nunn) that a few pages were enough to make his company feel unbearable and by page 152 I was in despair. So I gave up. To cheer myself up, and because I'd recently come across the Brautigan Book Club, I read my first Richard Brautigan in maybe a decade, The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, and it was gorgeous. It's told by a man who works in a library that doesn't lend books but receives them: the labours of love that people scrawl into notebooks and take to him with shyness, gratefulness and the subconscious knowledge that they are idiosyncratically articulating the soul of America. He lives there with Vida, who arrives with a rant against her own voluptuous body, and finds with him the possibility of self-acceptance. At first the book felt oddly written, because it apparently unfolds with all the banality of unedited everyday speech. And what's so brilliant about this is that when Vida realises she's pregnant, and has to travel across the Mexican border to Tijuana for an abortion, you implicitly understand that abortion is banal too, a difficult but necessary physical process, a right that shouldn't be demonised or criminalised. The book feels all the more potently political for its understatement.

After that, my first Elizabeth Taylor, At Mrs Lippincote's, which was subtle in different but also brilliant ways. It's a portrait of a marriage slowly dying of compromise, distraction and mutual disappointment, buffeted by the second world war, persisting through the resignation of the wife, a glorious, sparky, irreverent woman who loves the Brontes and refuses to conform to anyone's expectations, least of all her buttoned-up husband's. Her heart cools and she is tempted away but in the end she decides:

I never wanted to be a Madame Bovary. That way for ever – literature teaches us as much, if life doesn't – lies disillusion and destruction. I would rather be a good mother, a fairly good wife, and at peace.

Which seems as good a new year resolution as any. As for Taylor, I want to emulate her precision, her elegance, her emotional acuity, in the stories I keep saying I'll write, when there is more time...