Monday, 18 August 2014

each in their own way flailing

It's Thursday 24 July and for the third night this week a man is stood below my sitting-room window, singing. Once upon a time I dreamed of being serenaded like this, by some floppy-haired indie-boy-prince of my dreams, but reality is crueller than fancy. What this stranger calls singing is obstreperous, grinding, brutally unintelligible; a noise steadfast and oppressive as the roar of machinery. On the first two nights I think about calling the police, and then I remember the treatment that someone who might be homeless and might be alcoholic and might be mentally unstable is likely to get at the hands of the Met and berate myself for my lack of patience or understanding. I think about going downstairs and trying to talk to him but shrink in fear of what power a man who has apparently lost all sense of spacial or social awareness might be able to wield over me. On the third night I give up trying to work to this enervating soundtrack and stand by the window and watch him. He wears a black leather jacket and carries a violin case over his shoulder and mostly his hair is grey. Sometimes he sits on the stoop directly below, swaying and stamping an unruly punctuation. Sometimes he follows other men across the road, kicks at the bins, wanders into the distance, the volume barely decreasing. For a few glorious minutes he is quiet, and I discover it's because the young homeless man with the gentle smile is rolling him a cigarette and talking calmly with him, a gesture of fathomless generosity. (Later, when I ask the young homeless man about this encounter, he has no idea who I'm talking about. The men who speak to him are interchangeable.)

When the ranting begins again, I do my best to tune in my hearing, dialling through the static until I hit the man's frequency. What emerges, on repeat, is a word, “misunderstood”, and a question: “Why won't they just let me be?” In a flash, I'm reminded of Dave, the drunk homeless character in Stella Duffy's The Room of Lost Things, once married and a businessman, now accustomed to the simple routine of living in a lager-fuelled haze on a moulding sofa dumped on a backstreet. Dave has found, if not contentment, at least a dull calm. But this man is neither content nor calm. He is the embodiment of fury, of the sheer fucking insult that it is to be human and alive.

The following day, Friday 25 July, the man isn't on the street below my window. He's on stage at the Royal Court instead.

*

This Royal Court preview is my second encounter with Men in the Cities and I still can't hold this bit of text in my head. I was there for the first read-through in the rehearsal room, a small expectant group of us huddled round a table, Chris anxious and placatory of voice, his director, Wendy Hubbard, frowning as she annotates her script. I don't look at the script: I just listen. But I can't find the frequency for this specific torrent of words, unleashed by a bereaved father in the general direction of a 6-foot-9 gay black man who sings transcendentally on the glittering streets of Christmas. A torrent of words directed at patriarchy and capitalism and whatever that is up in the sky (God or the stars or maybe just satellites), defiant yet desperate for redemption. When Chris unleashes it he raises his voice and I'm instantly reminded of the preacher segment of God/Head, failing to notice the difference in register. In the rehearsal room, this feels like the least effective bit of text. But in the Royal Court, it feels electric.

I visited this rehearsal room only twice, seeing Chris work with text and intonation but not with movement or setting. Which means much of what I see on stage is a surprise. Intermittently I regret being part of the company, because it makes me unable to watch this preview for myself: instead I'm distracted by the rest of the audience. I note their laughter, the moments of frisson, and where their attention begins to wander. I note how nervous Chris sounds, not just at the beginning but throughout. I note the exactitude of Katharine Williams' lighting: the soft peach that envelops the young gay lovers, the harsher white cast on grit-hard Graham; I note how each click of the bulbs economically transforms the mood and the scene, making it distinct to each character. I note that I feel emotionally disconnected, and not fully convinced that the text is working.

But then Chris unleashes that torrential rant, and the way he twists his body around it is astonishing. As he shouts he clutches at the air, as if trying to prise answers from its atoms. Initially he leans into the microphone, then gradually pulls away, still ranting, but staggering now, flailing, stamping and swaying, bent over with the weight of anger and resentment and unbearable sorrow, drunk on the indignity of being human and alive. And the transcendent singing stops but the rant goes on, as steadfast and oppressive as the roar of machinery. My father and his father and his father. Misunderstood. Misunderstood. Misunderstood.

Later, as we walk down the stairs to the tube, my husband tells me he found this bit awkward, and thought that was because it wasn't working, but then he realised the awkwardness was his own, because the rant is abominably raw, and he wanted to protect himself from it.

Later still, in bed, staring into the dark, I remembered that I'd seen the staggering man another time. He was in a basement room in Shoreditch Town Hall. And this man didn't survive.

*

This latest bout of whatever it is – depression? Suffocating sadness? Desire to just fucking stop and live in a limbo of quiet, feeling nothing? – began to seep through me a few days before seeing Leo Kay's It's Like He's Knocking, on Friday 11 July. Sometimes the show feels like a dangerous place to be. It starts in a darkened bar, Kay raising a toast to “telling it like it is, even if you don't know how it was”. We each drink a shot but he drinks at least four, and there is something so careless in this action that the basement room in Shoreditch Town Hall begins to hum with worry for him. We move to another room, fitted up like a meagre bedsit, and anxiety grows. Alcohol ran through the blood of his forefathers, and depression, and loneliness, and uncertainty. My father and his father and his father, Kay cries, not in words so much as the pulse of the heart. This is a story of wild coincidences and wilder adventure, and the overwhelming fear that, however damaged your ancestors, you will never, never live up to them. It's a story of choosing to live and choosing to die: and if you chose the latter, how would you do it? With a noose in the toilet or jumping off a tall building? Or the way Kay's grandfather chose, alone in a bedsit in the centre of London, with the door and windows sealed and the gas of the oven filling the room?

It's a dangerous place to be, but Kay offers a measure of care. He fills our eyes with beautiful images: the light that beams through a makeshift porthole on the ship that carried his grandfather to America; the descriptions of the women his grandfather loved; the glow of a beach in Israel. He fills our ears with gorgeous sounds: a charged exchange between tambourine and accordion; the growl of Leadbelly, the wash of the sea. Kay's own voice, the amber of whiskey, the keen of viola. On one wall he's pinned a note that reads, very roughly: depression grows in the gap between the story you tell about yourself and the truth. Like there's a truth. Kay's honesty feels like a gift: by now, in his early 40s, he'd thought he would be a father himself. And he didn't expect his father to have died. The show becomes a eulogy, for complicated relationships with difficult men, whose absence creates a void in the soul. A void Kay fills with this performance, dedicated to his father and his father, fragile and tender and spare.

But every time Kay reaches for a bottle, a shiver runs through the audience. There is relief in the fact of this work being a collaboration, with the audience who willingly engage in a wager (in a sense, to save him), and with a Brazilian musician whose thrumming soundtrack heightens the impression of extended ritual – a ritual that culminates in the summoning of a spirit, as Kay, now dressed in a suit, hair slicked back, throat burning with booze, re-creates with swaggering gestures an 8mm film in which his grandfather imitates Charlie Chaplin. Strobe lights flicker like the shake of the movie, and Kay – or his grandfather – stamps and sways and barely stays upright. And even if this is meant to be a happy film, I don't read joy in these flailing movements. Kay's grandfather is twisted or bent over with the weight of anger and resentment and unbearable sorrow. He is drunk with the indignity of being human and alive.

*

And now it's Thursday 14 August and I'm wondering if Chris has been really fucking irresponsible in detailing with such precision another way to die.

And I start thinking about Dead Line, by Jo Bannon: a show made to create space for people to face up to the inevitability of death. To talk about that with someone whose professional life puts them in close contact with death, and then think about it in solitude. I sat in its final room, bathed in light, gazing through the window at the milky sky and the distant activity of a public square, and wondered how long I've been frightened, not of death, but of living. Maybe I'm not thinking of the show itself but the conversation I had with Jo on the street after, in which she told me why she'd made this work, and I told her how I'd responded to it, together making a space for each other to talk about death openly and honestly, exactly as Dead Line had intended.

And I think back to the night before, Wednesday 13 August, when, on the insistence of my friend David, I went to see Scott Capurro. It's a complicated experience: part of me feels guilty for laughing at anything so relentlessly offensive, part of me relishes the scabrous insult and outrageous performance of it, part of me wishes that he were as inventive (or perhaps loving) with his misogyny as he is with his racism. But mostly I'm fascinated by the unexpected resonances with Men in the Cities. I hear it in the moment when Scott praises the audience for careful listening, because: “Listening is the most radical thing we can do.” And again in two startling, abrupt shifts in tone, the first fleeting, the second sustained. The show overruns because Scott, with absolute sincerity, gets carried away telling us about the final days of his mother's life, and the absurd events of her funeral. But when he talks about his mother, you can tell that his thoughts are also with Robin Williams, who died two days before. And those thoughts erupt mid-set, when Scott leans into the microphone and demands: “If you're funny and rich and successful and [I can't remember the fourth thing], and even you can't make it, what hope have the rest of us got?”

*

I see Men in the Cities on my own on Sunday 10 August and cry repeatedly and with a sense of release. Chris isn't nervous any more and I'm less distracted by the rest of the audience and I feel the play swell through me and I know that it works. It really fucking works.

I'm anxious about most things at the moment so it's no surprise that the thought of writing about Men in the Cities from the midst of indeterminate sadness or maybe depression and certainly a desire to sink into nothingness has been making me anxious. Chris is directly addressing a crisis among men, of mental illness leading to suicide, and much in the experience and perspective of his characters is specific to masculinity and distant from me. Me, whose experience of depressionorwhatever corresponds altogether too frequently to my menstrual cycle, which basically makes me a running joke. (Although my – male – GP told me last year that menstrual-depression is particularly hard to address so, y'know, fuck you with your snides and eye-rolls.) A few days after seeing Chris at the Royal Court I'm listening to Parquet Courts (brief aside: I fucking love Parquet Courts, and this piece from Rolling Stone is just perfect in its articulation of how idiotic and resplendent that feels), and more than once they narrate the same specificity and distance. Especially in this song:


so caustic in its delineation of the meagre opportunities afforded young men. Chris is talking about the violence wreaked on men, of all ages, by patriarchal structures of masculinity. I don't want my female/feminist self getting in the way.

On the face of it, Men in the Cities seems grievously non-feminist: there are almost no female characters – a dead wife is mentioned, and a divorced wife, plus two girls on scooters and a group of women doing yoga, mocked as fat and ridiculous, and that's pretty much it. But Chris isn't dealing with the face of things. He's digging much deeper than that, taking a scalpel to Conservative society to cut through the lie of its blustering surface, revealing everything broken and crushed beneath. The young man who commits suicide despite being in a loving relationship and the widowed ex-serviceman who no longer sees a world he believes in and the boy in primary school who cries in the bathroom because he has no idea how to be. The first time I encountered that boy, Rufus, in the rehearsal room, I thought he was repulsive. Absolutely fucking terrifying. He watches hardcore porn and attacks other boys in the school toilets and teases older men and treats pretty much everything – school, parents, bike – with contempt. But the moment Chris put him on stage, Rufus became... adorable. A little scared boy trying to be a man, and utterly confused about what that means. The scene from which the play takes its title, when Rufus stands before a work of art and feels himself welling up as he recognises its obstreperous, grinding, brutal humanity, is extraordinary. In Chris' words, each of the men in this work are “drawn contorted in a different way, in his own way, flailing. As though falling, or fallen, or twisted somehow or bent.” Exactly the same words could be used to describe each of the men in his play. Especially flailing: every single one of them is flailing, in a sea of what might be called depression or suffocating sadness, or simply loneliness. Loneliness oozes from these lives like slow poison. A loneliness heavy with anger and resentment and unbearable sorrow and the indignity of being alive.

The one balm Chris has to offer is feminism: a radical politics of empathic humanity that seeks to dismantle those repressive patriarchal structures and build more equitable, communal, supportive ways of living instead. “Can we not just put it all down,” Chris asks, except he's not really asking, because there's no question mark there, in the text or his delivery. Put down the competition and the aggression and the attitudes of destruction, and pick up compassion instead.

*

It's lunchtime on Thursday 14 August and my friend Jake tells me that if I want to stop writing about theatre then I should stop already. That's the thing about depressionorwhatever: the insecurity it brings on is just fucking boring. Later I fall while running, jolting the shoulder I broke in April, giving physical form to this pathetic inner fragility. Later I see Will Eno's Title and Deed, and it's basically a rehash of Will Eno's Thom Pain (based on nothing), which is to say breathtakingly exquisite. I'm not exaggerating: there are several moments when my chest hurts from not being able to breathe. Maybe it's when the character – a man in middle age, flailing, lonely, twisted somehow, suffocating – says: “I don't want to paint too dreary a picture of my misery. I have laughed. … Don't pity me, is all I'm saying.” Or when he says: “I had occasion – this is embarrassing – to question my existence. Not in big ways.” Or when he says: “Time, place, happiness. It's only three words. I should have been able to figure it out.” Or when he says: “Women care more about the world. It's bigger for them. That's why it's sadder when they die.” Or when he says: “Don't get lost for too long. They stop looking eventually.” No matter how pitch-perfect Conor Lovett's performance – and really, the cadence of it, the fall of every comma and the breath of every pause, is just so – there's something off-key about Eno spoken in an Irish accent. My brain seems to perform a simultaneous translation into American. And another simultaneous translation into me.

Don't get lost for too long. They stop looking eventually.

*

And now I'm home and the children are still the children and the hours are still the hours and the confusion is still suffocating and the sadness is still heavy. I am human and I am alive and I am flailing. I read another terrific blogpost by Katherine Mitchell, on her experience of depression. And then I retreat to the kitchen and I bake. Recently I realised that whenever I make something particularly chocolatey and particularly unhealthy I want to share it with Chris, which is pretty fucking perverse considering he has diabetes. So as I baked on Saturday night I thought of Chris and this is the recipe I made and it's dedicated to him.

I've made this twice now, differently each time, and it's basically an off-the-top-of-my-head adaptation of a brownie recipe in the first Ottolenghi cookbook. Very roughly it involves putting a lot of chocolate (let's say 175g) and a lot of butter (also 175g) in a saucepan with a wodge of molasses sugar (125g or so) and heating it gently, stirring to melt the sugar. Very roughly it involves beating two eggs gently with a fork, stirring in 75g or so of light muscovado sugar, then stirring in maybe 100g of flour, or maybe 80g flour and 20g cocoa powder. Very roughly it involves lining an 18-20cm square baking tin with paper or foil and tipping half a jar of apricot jam in, preferably jam that has been lying around in the cupboard for over a year so you feel almost virtuous for using it up. Very roughly it involves stirring the chocolate-butter-sugar mixture into the egg-sugar-flour mixture, adding a few drops of vanilla or a shake of cinnamon or mixed spice if you want, or not bothering, as I did; then very roughly pouring the chocolate mixture over the jam and baking this in an oven heated to gas 3 or about 165 degrees for something like 25 minutes. What comes out – and you have to leave it in the tin for a bit before taking it out, otherwise the jam spills everywhere – is essentially a slapdash and graceless Sachertorte, and self-pity eating of the very highest order.

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