Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Lost, but adapting

Here I am in the new freelance life, typing one-handed because, in the now-traditional Cyprus Holiday Medical Emergency, I slipped on a mountain slope indulging my small people's desire to “do something more creative” when walking (nope, no idea where that came from) and fractured my left shoulder. So although I have small bits of proper (as in, to whatever degree, paid) work to buckle down to, I'm consoling myself with a mental clear-out.

Or maybe, in finally writing about Headlong's 1984, what I really want to do is cement an idea, a provocation, in my brain. The notion of surveillance culture has unsettled me ever since my parents forced a mobile phone on me in the late-1990s (they'd had one for years already); and yet, the more I swipe the Oyster card, or idly tweet my whereabouts, or buy stuff unnecessarily for the Nectar points, the harder it gets to resist its mechanisms – or even register I'm submitting to them. I've become one of the people Duncan Macmillan's script scorns, too busy staring at my smart phone to notice my own complicity. It's come to a pretty sorry pass when my one consistent act of resistance is to refuse to say where I heard about a show on a theatre booking site.

Not that any of this informed the wariness I felt about seeing 1984: that was more to do with Headlong – the last show of theirs I'd seen, Chimerica, was so irritating – and the show's director, Robert Icke, whose production of Boys was infuriating (in a shop in Cyprus I saw a giant wooden spoon like the one used in the final scene of that show and had an instant spasm of cross). Despite all the jaw-to the-floor reviews from writers-I-love for 1984, I took my seat thinking about qualities of aggression in stagecraft and Matt Trueman's Guardian interview with Rupert Goold (particularly the “I'm a populist” bit), and wondering what if any affinity I feel for Headlong's hardwired showiness. A churlish mood not improved by a 40-minute delay to the start, thanks to “technical issues” triggered by one of the cast getting stuck in traffic.

True to form, 1984 was aggressive, populist, showy – and dazzling. I was hooked from the opening scene – in which Winston Smith begins to write in a diary, words scratched in black ink and projected, magnified, on a screen above his head – whose accidental flashback to Chris Goode's Cendrars project was a good auger for the slipperiness to follow. “1984?” Winston writes, then stares, perplexed, as a book group arrive, readers who argue the toss over the book, its author, its authenticity. These figures melt into Winston's bureau companions; he stumbles among them, startled incomprehension furrowing his features, struggling to apprehend their identities – a struggle shared, thrillingly, by us in the audience.

For the whole first swathe of the play, it felt as though time was folding in on itself. Scenes replayed in unnerving Groundhog-Day iterations, a live-action game of spot the difference: with each not-quite-repeat Winston would falter, halted in his tracks by the uncertain familiarity, the absence where a person had been. The other characters would glare at him, issuing a challenge: “Where do you think you are?” And again, the frisson of feeling that challenge poke the audience. When Winston and Julia become lovers, our status as audience becomes yet more complicated: although innately sympathetic with the couple in their detestation of Big Brother, the ability we're given to spy on them in their secret hideaway casts us in that all-seeing role. But how much power or insight do we really have? We can't tell if these projected images of intimacy are live or pre-recorded. And then comes a startling twist: another of those character metamorphoses, that exposes how trusting we've been of everything placed before us.

This icy argument – the impossibility of trusting anyone, not even a soulmate – dominates the final section, in the script and the glaring white light and abrasive noise of the staging. Something about this section troubled me, but I couldn't decipher that until I started reading the programme. Which is excellent: it's packed with meaty thought, usefully contains a long extract from the little-read Appendix to 1984 that inspired the book-group frame, and makes space for design sketches. At the front is an interview with Icke and Macmillan, with a nutshell description of the duo's guiding principles:

“How do we achieve doublethink [says Macmillan], how do we deliver the intellectual argument, and also can we take along a 15-year-old who has never read the book while satisfying the scholar who has read this book 100 times? And once you've seen it and go back to the book, is it all still there...?” To which, he concludes: “I think we've ended up being incredibly faithful to the book.”

This, I realised, was my problem. At risk of sounding a right ignoramus, I've not read 1984, only skimmed it, cramming in as much as I could the night before interviewing Blind Summit about their staging of it in 2009. In selecting the sequence of events to present on stage, Icke and Macmillan had made precisely the same choices I remember Blind Summit making. Who knows, maybe they're the only possible choices. But the similarity struck me as odd.

A fair bit was written about books as a source of material for theatre in the days following 1984's arrival at the Almeida, mostly provoked by Michael Billington's tub-thumping, ought-to-be-cut coda to his review, arguing for original drama over dramatisations. To which Andrew Haydon responded with spluttering incomprehension and followed by customary exactitude, while Lyn Gardner gently waved the flag for less traditional theatre-making. The exchange made me feel a bit peculiar, because I agreed with Andrew and Lyn, but felt Michael had a point. Much as I enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I couldn't see the point of it except as a money-spinner (a view somewhat mollified by its schools tour); I was really excited about seeing Let the Right One In but all it did was confirm that I think vampire stories are stupid and stage blood is unconvincing. If dramatisation exists to blind people into buying theatre tickets rather than three or four novels and a pack of Digestives, I can't get behind it.

Realising that Headlong's 1984 wasn't so far removed from Blind Summit's 1984 reminded me how extremely distant it was from Chris Goode's properly radical, often bewildering, not-at-all populist dramatisation of sundry modernist texts by Blaise Cendrars. Which is, of course, why 1984 is now in the West End while the Cendrars project, for all its intelligence and beauty, has been seen by 48 people and a dog-human (aka Jonny Liron). If dramatisation means taking wild leaps from the printed material, making scholars work fucking hard to recognise shards of the original text, giving a 15-year-old two astonishing experiences of discovery, and eschewing generalised notions of relevance to cry from the heart about why this story right now, bring it on. There's a column by Catherine Love written soon after she saw 1984 that makes roughly this point: “I would much rather see the likes of Peter McMaster's Wuthering Heights, which bears little resemblance to Emily Bronte's novel but uses it as a foundation for its meditation on modern masculinity, than a slavish reproduction of something better suited to the page than the stage.” I loved that Wuthering Heights so much I've engineered a trip to Mayfest in Bristol specifically to see it again. A few weeks before 1984 I saw another adaptation for the second time, Tom Frankland and Keir Cooper's punk-romance spin on Don Quijote, which takes an actual power saw to a copy of the novel before running individual pages through a shredder. Icke's opening gambit of putting a question-mark after the title of 1984 looks prissy by comparison.

All of which was a useful mental stew to take into the fourth Lyric Hammersmith Secret Theatre show, Glitterland, also an adaptation, of John Webster's The White Devil. Not that I'd have known this when sitting in front of it, were it not for the questionable new decision to hand out programme notes before the show rather than after. I've read the play but too many years ago to count; what I recognised was the Jacobean flavour of the text, a blood pudding treated with liquid nitrogen. Except that the story has been rewritten by Hayley Squires as a squalid dystopian fairy-tale instantly redolent of Philip Ridley (bless Lyn Gardner for being the only other reviewer I've clocked make that comparison), in the modern-baroque flourish of the language and, most of all, the characters' fanciful choice of drugs. The two styles meshing and colliding is the closest I've seen on stage to a DJ/producer mash-up, theatre's version of Danger Mouse's Grey Album.


Amid this rococo-futurism sits the soundtrack, another of those iPod shuffle jobs, although mostly 1960s soul this time, employed as a means of political discourse, for public expressions of grief and determination, to cajole a populace (the audience, effectively) and seduce it. Me? I was in raptures. Reading the sometimes mealy-mouthed reviews by writers-I-love, I was surprised by how few of their reservations I shared. It's not set in a clearly defined world, its politics aren't rigorous enough, the women lack agency: all fair enough, but none of these things ruffled me, because the world felt so complete in its otherness. Part of that otherness comes from the embedded Secret Theatre manifesto of non-naturalism, which continues to play teasing games with Charlotte Joseph's gender and fruitfully cast Nadia Albina as a sleazy male film director, all slicked-back oiliness and winkle-picker spike. Part of that otherness comes from the insular nature of the ensemble, in which I, as an increasingly devoted fan, feel included and complicit. Watching them is like playing with electricity: sometimes the light just won't switch on, sometimes you'll get your fingers burned, but the constant between is a buzz of excitement. And the voltage surges every time Leo Bill walks on stage: no matter how repulsive his character – and the reptilian, murderous, self-serving politician he plays in Glitterland, selling out his own sister for the sake of his ambition, is high-grade obnoxious – he is impossibly charismatic. Yes, that's now a bona-fide crush talking.

The one thing that threw me, on reading the programme notes, was that Glitterland's director wasn't – as in Secret Shows 1-3 – Sean Holmes. Appropriately enough, it was the devilish figure of the white-suited trickster who misled me: slinking between black panelled walls and lurking in shadows, luring Leo Bill to destruction with her siren song, she seemed a direct quotation from Three Kingdoms and yet another instance of Holmes' fanboy devotion to that show's director, Sebastian Nubling. Discovering that Glitterland's director was actually Ellen McDougall made me wonder whether allegiance to Nubling has to be sworn by everyone in the ensemble.

McDougall directed one of my favourite shows of 2013, and one of the best adaptations I've ever seen: Ignace Cornelissen's rewrite of Henry the Fifth, which equates political machinations with sandpit competition, storytelling with the power to control one's own destiny, and feminism with the grace that will save us all. This Henry V is a Hal who remained behind clouds: irresponsible, truculent, defiant, choosing to go to war in utter disregard of its impact on the populace because it might fill the coffers and definitely boosts the ego. Oh, hello, Tory repugnance. Faced with such bracingly direct attacks on their ideology, no wonder they're opposed to arts subsidy.

More galvanising still was Cornelissen's transformation of the French princess Katherine, bent by Shakespeare to Henry's charms, but here given agency and a buoyant sense of adventure. The moments when Katherine, exquisitely played by Hannah Boyde, escapes her patriarchal world, first by stealing the coat of the narrator, then by rejecting the masculine premise and trappings of power, made me shivery with glee. Bear in mind that this powerful introduction to key feminist ideas was aimed at school children, aged roughly 8-11, and you'll understand why I felt like the world shone more brightly for a week after I saw it.

If I'd thought about it, I'd have connected Henry the Fifth and Glitterland instantly by their careful staging of violence. These are blood-soaked plays: the first set in a war zone, the second steeped in greed, lust, mistrust and revenge. But McDougall refuses to re-enact where she can as trenchantly represent. In Henry the Fifth, the ranks of armed men take the form of balloons: the visceral sound of each one popping, the useless shrivel of deflated plastic left behind, was surprisingly, but genuinely, stomach-clenching to witness. In Glitterland, guns are mimed by the palm of the hand – not crooked around a pretend trigger but flat and gleaming with blood. To kill, a murderer simply smeared their hand over a victim. No seductive glint of metal, no hint of gangster glamorisation: just the action and its consequence. Brilliant.

All this was nicely simmering when, two weeks after Glitterland, I snuck off to Plymouth for Chris Goode's Mad Man. I wish I'd been able to see that twice as well: I saw the first preview, when a good 50% of it felt like ride-the-chaos-by-the-seat-of-the-pants-and-just-hope-we-make-it-to-the-other-side. In my head I wanted it to be: “No, this is how you do adaptation.” It wasn't. But it also kind of was.

The wasn't first. As the title warns, Mad Man deletes the diary structure from Nikolai Gogol's story Diary of a Madman, and unsettles its first-person narrative, presenting the character at once from inside and out. But scan the text and its key features are all staged: the talking dogs (hilariously played by Gemma Brockis and Gareth Kieran Jones), the obsession with sharpening quills (here, pencils), the reading of the dog's letters, the preposterous trip to the theatre, the delusion of grandeur. This was much more “I think we've ended up being incredibly faithful to the book” than power-saw massacre. Even the wood-panelled set looked like Winston Smith's bureau in 1984. (Except for the green glass lamp, which I recognised from the desk of God in, you guessed it, the Cendrars project. A useful augur...)

Reading Gogol's story, I found the lengthy sequence in which the “madman”, Poprishchin, comes to the realisation that he's the King of Spain difficult: partly because his mental fragility, and inability to read social situations, are unconsciously yet terribly sad, mostly because his labouring of the point is quite tedious. As on the page, so on the stage: Lucy Ellinson's beleaguered madman, now Pushpin, bleached hair haywire and lips puckered exactly as though she were a tortoise in a sack, spent what felt like aeons contemplating what it meant to be the King of Spain, while the mechanisms of office life rolled quietly, tediously on around him. It was boring. But it was boring in the way that winding a very stiff and difficult crank on a mechanical toy, or pushing a heavy sledge up a snow-covered hill, are boring. They are the hard work necessary to appreciate the vertiginous thrill of free-fall.

Which brings us to the was. Again, this was a first preview, so the material was more in control of the performers than vice versa. But I'm pretty sure I was seeing played from snatched memory what was intended to become rehearsed. As Matt Trueman wrote in his Guardian review (I wasn't allowed to review it because I'm too close to Chris for trustworthy independent opinion – don't get me started):

Chris Goode's freeform staging is just as singular. Cartoonish and careering, it constantly bursts its frame with extended dance sequences and scripted meta-theatrics. At one point, it gets stuck on repeat for days and, though the stubborn refusal to adhere to conventional, satisfying rhythms can be frustrating, the resulting unpredictability is thrilling and fitting.

When we first walk into the room, the stage is in total disarray. Furniture upended, clothes strewn, party paraphernalia scattered. Brockis, Jones and Nigel Barrett erupt into the space through trap doors and hidden panels and – to the blaring, bracingly antagonistic accompaniment of Mark E Smith barking Paranoid Man in Cheap Shit Room (ha!) – hurl themselves with panicked fury into tidying up. Order is restored – but the imprint of chaos remains. The measured calm of office life feels like a front.

Chris has shifted the setting to the 1930s (hence the proximity of the design to 1984); that ghost of chaos is also the spectre of global violence and economic depression. A world disrupted by capitalism. In which some people have everything and most people have nothing. Repeatedly Pushpin questions what makes his office co-workers so superior, the topsy-turvy values of a society that treats humans as machines and values money above life. He does so from a place of mental breakdown, the way Shakespeare's Fools speak the clearest truths. And because this is theatre, Chris can rupture the facade. In probably my favourite moment of the entire show, Barrett's bluff, bullying office director sits at his desk and, in his most wheedling voice, calls to his secretary. Once, twice, no answer. So he just severs the pretence: “Gemma!” he snips. He wants to know what she thinks of his performance, if he's overplaying the crassness, being too broad. And at the moment when Pushpin, napping at his desk, begins to stir, Barrett/the director says: “Quick, look real.” It's profoundly disconcerting, because it's more than meta-theatrics: it's the moment when you apprehend the possibility that this world – and by extension our world: the time on the clock hanging on the back wall of the stage is real – is specifically constructed to make people mad. As Ann Cvetkovich writes in the essential book Depression: A Public Feeling, mental illness “can be seen as a category that manages and medicalises the affects associated with keeping up with corporate culture and the market economy, or with being completely neglected by it”. Faced with capitalism and its concomitant inequities and oppressions, she continues,“depression seem[s] not so much a medical or biochemical dysfunction as a very rational response to global conditions”. The madness isn't in Pushpin: it's in society.

And yet none of this is said out loud. And that wrongfooty feeling, of this being a punk show disguised as populism, of fierce politics boiling beneath the surface of a fantastical story, was delicious. Point after radical point is made, but fleetingly, almost subconsciously – except in the moments where they're outrageous in their crass expression. The scene in which Pushpin, at an apex of madness, gives a public announcement tearfully acknowledging that “the earth is going to bum the moon”, was howlingly funny: on come Brockis and Barrett, each holding a large disc apparently constructed by a five-year-old, the earth fitted with a wonkily drawn penis on a split pin, to simulate the rape. It's so preposterous and yet, in its suggestion of rich men buying up chunks of space (a key news story the day I saw Uninvited Guests' Make Better Please) or even the devastations of climate change, soberingly true.

What recourse do we have, what means of escape? In my other favourite scene, Pushpin falls asleep again, a mirror ball lowers from the ceiling, the Fall return, Brockis puts on a muzzle, Jones a collar, Barrett, perfectly, a dog-lampshade, and together they dance. “I'm lost in music, feel so alive, I quit my 10 to 5.” OK, yes, it's Chris Goode doing a Headlong – but fucking how. Unlike most Headlong copyist dance routines – even most Headlong dance routines – this one didn't feel gratuitous to the plot, there for the sake of razzle-dazzle entertainment. It felt queer and disturbing and blood-rush exciting. The three office workers cast off the constraints they've constructed for themselves, lose themselves in art, lose themselves in music. They quit. And it makes you wonder what might happen if we all quit: stopped making capitalism, and started doing something else instead.*

In all the linguistic games Chris plays with his script – from Barrett's arcane line of grotesque insults to Pushpin's helplessly jumbled malapropisms – one phrase rings out consistently: Pushpin's assertion of “quiet dignity”. He clings to it through the final, devastating chunk of Mad Man, when – as in 1984 – the walls of the office open up to reveal a blank space beyond and – as in 1984 – the main character is transported to a vision of hell, where – as in 1984 – he's beaten and tortured to force him to conform. I still, to my shame, haven't read in its entirety Chris's mammoth blog post on the subject of (among other things) nakedness; generally it's the failure in my thinking about his work, my incomplete understanding of how and why he asks for nakedness: so I'm not fully confident I know what was happening in the closing scene, when Jones – wearing nothing but a pair of chunky DM boots – reaches out a hand to Ellinson's now crumpled, abject Pushpin. You could see discomfort streaking Jones' face: I hope he settled into it, because what I think that scene was doing was giving Pushpin back his quiet dignity. Pushpin is defeated by the world he lives in: let's face it, we're all going to be. Mad Man at least made that knowledge feel a little less lonely, offering a secret handshake of solidarity to anyone who wants to read its codes.


*In the new freelance life, “doing something else” feels more indulgent than ever. It's not going to pay any bills or feed my kids. I've spent about 17 hours on this piece of writing, hours I'm struggling not to consider in some way wasted because they weren't used making money. This, of course, is the triumph of 1984: thought control, the pervasive belief that nothing else is possible. In the grip of terror that I'll never earn a minimum wage, let alone a London living wage, from writing again, in the midst of disgust at the self-regard this implies (just get a job in Sainsbury's already), I want to believe in the dream of quitting, but can't square it with the reality of a fairly conservative family existence.