I’m going to tell you this story but I don’t mean to say that what’s been happening to me is more important than what’s been happening to you lately. Or more interesting. Maybe another night we’ll all come round to your place and you can tell us how you’re doing. I’d quite like that. But I’ve made this piece about my experiences, and I’m just speaking from the middle of this place I’m in where stuff is happening, because I want to tell you the truth and I’m not sure I can tell you the truth about anybody else. But I know I can tell you the truth about me. Or I can try.
[Chris Goode, God/Head, introductory section]

First, a note on time. Today, 28 February 2014, it is two years since Chris Goode's God/Head was first performed at Ovalhouse in London, some 15 months since its final performance in Bristol. What follows is built from notes I made following my appearance in it as a guest at the end of the second week of the three-week London run, and after seeing two performances in the final week; a first attempt at writing this 12 months ago; reflections that arose during the months it took to conduct and then transcribe 10 interviews with other London guest performers; and the rethinking inspired when, to finish writing this, I returned to Chris' script.

Unlike other Chris Goode & Company shows I've written about as critic-in-residence, I have no outside perspective on God/Head. Before I saw it, I performed in it. When I went back to watch it from the outside, it was through a filter of having been inside. I was inside it, and it lives inside me.

But perhaps that would have been the case anyway. A friend of mine, Emerald, saw God/Head twice because it spoke so directly to a central dilemma of her life at that time: the impossibility of knowing what to do about anything (her relationship, her work, whether or not to have children), because everything she thought was fraught with contradiction. God/Head reassured her that it's possible to live within paradox. Another friend, David, who lives with depression, was so overwhelmed by its honesty, anger, desire and acuity, it took him a week to recover. A year after God/Head, Chris was back at Ovalhouse with The Forest and the Field, a staged argument for a new way of thinking about theatre, society, nakedness and cats. It spoke to me so directly, and I was so overwhelmed by it, that I saw it twice in three days. My lack of perspective on God/Head is particular, but characteristic.

Now we know where we stand, let's talk about the show. This, in essence, was God/Head: five variations on a story. A simple story of an encounter with God. On Thursday 21st April, 2011, Chris – stressed out by work and overtired – is walking home from the supermarket, listening to his iPod, burdened by shopping, already thinking this is enough, when he feels it, in his throat and in his chest:

That there is nothing bigger and realer and more vivid in the world, in the world of my perceptions in this moment, there is nothing realer than the presence, the immediate and total presence of God.

In whom I don’t believe. [God/Head, Story #1]

The first time he tells the story as a straightforward narration of events, like a statement you'd give to the police after being mugged in the street. But with each variation, the ground beneath the story shifts. He was struggling at the time to write a play about a teenager who reads the King James Bible because it's “the only book … that’s intense enough and weird enough to not immediately sound ridiculous to him”. He had been listening to a self-help audiobook by Iyanla Vanzant on his iPod: according to her website, Vanzant is “one of America's most profound spiritual leaders”; God, she argues, “is simply the truth in action”. According to Chris, Vanzant was his saviour during a severe spell of depression in 1999, a spell that contained a psychotic episode in which, waiting at a doctor's surgery to be prescribed anti-depressants, he knew with absolute certainty that the other patients were carrying knives and under instruction to kill him. Chris tells us this in the third variation, tells us also that while anti-depressants were a short-term suppression that made him feel “amazing. So light. And in love”, he found a more effective balance to ongoing mental disquiet in hypnoanalysis, which brings buried memories and unresolved feelings to the surface of consciousness, where they can be processed.

It's at this point that Chris restages a conversation with a specialist in experimental psychology, who argues that the encounter with God is a “neurochemical experience”: the product of an isolated, tired, stressed, overstimulated brain. It all, to quote one of my favourite songs, Simple Kid's Serotonin, comes down to how the chemicals flow to your soul.

Or does it?

Just as the story shifts, so does Chris' performance mode. There are dream sequences and casual conversation; there is rational debate and a section in which words are replaced by movements, gestures, spasms, physical noise; Chris is calm and reflective, then he is forceful, incandescent, a preacher at the pulpit. And all this is held within an unexpected frame: although essentially delivering a monologue, Chris performs with a guest, a different person each night, who spends the day with him preparing, for instance, the movements/gestures, but must also respond to instructions issued in the moment.

When I had the idea for the piece, I thought – because it’s about uncertainty and some of the things in it are difficult, and because being a solo performer is also in itself pretty uncertain and difficult sometimes – I thought I’d have a guest with me each night, just to keep me company really. The way it works is that they don’t know very much about the show, but we’ve spent a bit of time together today and made some material together and talked about some of the things that might come up tonight. And part of the piece is about how my guests respond to the ideas and the uncertainty. So every time we do this show, it’s a little bit different. If you come back and see it again, it’ll be a different guest and maybe it’ll have quite a different feel. [God/Head, introductory section]

A film of God/Head exists, featuring me as the guest performer (the very thought makes me balk). That night was reviewed, too, by Diana Damian, who felt that the presence of the guest ought to be crucial, but proved to be “slightly self-indulgent, particularly as it gave a forced turn to the evening”. In what now looks like an attempt to console myself for this stinging criticism (there's no way I'm inserting a winky face, but please read that with a winky face), I've spent the past two years telling myself that Lyn Gardner and Matt Trueman also described the relationship with the guest as self-indulgent; in fact, Lyn simply wrote that “the guest format felt a trifle forced”, while Matt argued that it “is not developed fully enough. It never threatens to derail the event – a key component of genuine risk.”

I was surprised, returning to the script after a two-year absence, by how closely the argument Chris gives for the presence of a guest corresponded with the argument I thought I had developed for myself. Watching others in the role, I became aware how much text Chris delivers directly to the guest, as though these two people on stage were sitting in a cafe having a chat. The guest makes it possible – safe – to talk about massive, emotional stuff in a small, everyday way. The guest was also, I felt both as one and watching others, a coping strategy for Chris: performing God/Head required him to expose his deepest self night after night, making integrated support necessary. Is that self-indulgent? Or a demonstration of a basic human need for other people, for community, for sympathy?

Contrary to Matt's desire for “genuine risk”, as an amateur performer I felt immense gratitude that the tasks were so manageable. Early in the afternoon, Chris had assured me that I shouldn't worry about making mistakes because I couldn't break his show (I was struck by the emphatic possessive: “my show”), which plunged me into topsy-turvy anxiety that maybe he was just saying that to me, the person who writes about theatre rather than makes it. By the end of the day, I felt so reassured that my role on stage was simply to be myself – to live. This proposition is integral to Chris Goode & Company, notably the work that happens in Open House: theatre is a place to live.

While Chris feels uncertainty within his narrative – in the face of God; in what he “believes” following the revelation of God, whether relating to faith or his understanding of his own brain – the guest enacts, or inhabits, uncertainty on stage. Four times during the show, the guest is handed an envelope and asked to follow the instructions it contains; twice the guest is given scripts to read from sight: the dialogue with the neuroscientist, and a dialogue with the fictional teenager from the Bible play. In return, the guest unsettles Chris' otherwise scripted monologue, first by describing their relationship with each other, later in response to the question: “What's the one thing you most want to say to Chris right now?” This puts Chris, too, on the spot, requiring him to respond in the moment; to my knowledge, only once – when Nicola Conibere, his final London guest, asked him where he finds the strength to deal with fear, and what words he uses to describe that sensation – did he refuse to give a complete answer, giving as his reason that it would unbalance the rest of the show. This was my third encounter with God/Head, and still I had no idea what he meant.

As a guest, your view of God/Head is partial: you're so focused on your tasks – narrating scenes from the walk you took with Chris earlier in the day as though describing images in a slide show; building a house of cards – that there are huge chunks of material that you simply don't hear, no matter how vehemently Chris speaks. But you also concentrate differently when not sitting on stage. When I first saw it as a member of the audience, I was struck by the number of times Chris uses the word fucking: sex and his vision of God are inextricably linked. I noticed how many times he says the word embarrassed: God is an encumbrance, a liability. I snagged on the single moment of inarticulacy – scripted, in the same place every time – prompted by his rage at the world we inhabit and, with whatever degree of awareness, complicity or acceptance, all contribute to maintaining and constructing. I can't find a note specifying where it happened, but there's this in the text:

Turning love chemicals into love songs is a billion miles away from how basically fucking angry I feel about, um..., the medicalizing of sadness: turning the fundamental sadness of being alive and being ultimately alone and wanting to fight that aloneness with love and art and fucking and being friends and hating capitalism and sometimes sometimes wishing you were dead, how angry I feel about a multi-billion dollar industry which depends on turning that reality into an illness that can be cured. That can just be suppressed.
[God/Head, Variation #4 – Fragmentation]

If that “um” is what I'm thinking of, then it was much more fraught, and startling, and splutteringly furious in person than it could ever appear on the page.

Although it's hard to piece God/Head together as the guest, in that first encounter I had a very clear sense of what the show was about. The word truth rang through it like a church bell, and chimed with my growing sense of excitement that the story Chris was telling wasn't about God, it was about art. Art is the truth in action. We see the writer as creator/Creator, grappling with human beings he can see but not touch, whose self-destructiveness fills him with pain; we see Chris the theatre-maker looking up at the sky, crying out to the universe, “How can I tell the truth? More?”; a key task for the guest is to read, within a dialogue, text attributed to G, which could denote the guest, or God, but increasingly takes the form of the ghostly teenage boy from the Bible play, who probes his creator's motivations. My voice unconsciously became more and more child-like as I read, an instinctive response to the brittle innocence of the boy's speech, particularly the lines: “I didn't have to be someone who wanted to hurt myself. You didn't have to make me want that. I could still have been beautiful.”

This encounter, and an unexpected moment of silent communion, just before Chris leaves the stage, when he performs a movement I've devised for him that only I know means “wanting God”, filled me with such surging exhilaration that I could barely contain myself on stage. I fluffed my final task (inserting a tape into an old-fashioned cassette player: I couldn't find the eject button) in my hurry to rush into the dressing room and erupt at Chris: “It's the art! Art is the truth in action!” To which he responded with an anguished frown, which reminded me that I was still wearing the microphone from the filming and should probably shut up.

With the wider perspective of the audience-member, I realised there was heaps more to God/Head than that. Chris told me that day that he tries to avoid talking to anyone after the show, because he doesn't want to hear people's immediate responses: he wants his audience to live with it for a bit, and see what other ideas emerge. Lyn Gardner's review, with distinctive economic penetration, illuminates much of its richness in a single paragraph:

God/Head is not really about whether God exists, but an exploration of the search for meaning in our lives and how we interpret experience. Intelligent and emotionally questing, it thinks out loud about transcendence, openness, loneliness in the face of a vast universe, constellations of memory and the need to be able to feel what we feel, sometimes without explanation or medical intervention.
[Lyn Gardner, the Guardian, 28 February, 2012]

But even that doesn't quite plumb the depths. I'm certain there are aspects of God/Head that, after two years of mulling over it, continue to elude me. But here's where I am with it so far:

It's not about God but, as Lyn suggests, the spiritual reassurance that a sense of unifying power in the universe represents. My husband, secure in his atheism, has always accepted that life lacks meaning; I struggle with that constantly, and often wish I had something, call it faith or spiritual strength, to counteract such bleakness. But there's more to this than a pedestrian existential crisis: there's a question of companionship. If God is present in your world, you're not alone. If God imbues tables and chairs and books and kitchen implements and pavements and trees with His presence, you need never be alone. And if His presence is silent, non-judgemental, loving, how much more consoling still. So it's not about God, but the need for communion, tenderness, understanding. And not just superficially: a longing to share the deepest, hidden part of you, to lose yourself in another, and in doing so, find yourself.

It’s about the reality of the wanting. Wanting to see and be seen and to be with and be been with.
[God/Head, Variation #4 – Fragmentation]

But this wanting contains its opposite: a fear of what genuine, profound connection with another being might entail. A fear of exposure, of loss of control. Of showing yourself for what you really are: a gnashing, desperate, irrational animal, tearing at your own flesh in fury and frustration and hatred and choking desire. Fear of self intertwined with fear of the other. There are aspects of God/Head that I consistently shy away from, that frighten me in some way. Glimpses of extreme experience, particularly sexual experience; of violent intimacy, where the violence is physical and emotional; of lying naked on a cold floor, blindfolded, wrists bound, shivering with adrenaline, anticipation. When Chris says God is like “a lover [who] spontaneously does something you deeply want but could never ask for”, I feel timid and naive.

One of the nights I watched from the audience, Chris' long-time friend and collaborator Theron Schmidt was his guest. On Chris' invitation, he talked about “a time as an adult when you realized you were feeling something you’d never felt before”, which mostly related to getting married, but also referred back to his first orgasm, “body burning and alive”. These words got to the heart of God/Head in a way I knew I never would. Because it's not about God, it's about sex, queer sex – the kind of sex few people really talk about, just as few people really talk about God.

The more I told myself it's not about God, the more I wondered: why am I so keen for it not to be about God? What am I resisting? In many ways I'm fine with notions of spirituality, the soul, cosmic energy – but God doesn't mean any of those things to me. God means the social repression authorised by the Bible (or the Qur'an, or any prescriptive religious document), which condemns deviancy from rigid conceptions of heteronormativity, raises men above women, and institutionalises shame. God means control, inequality, unnecessary suffering, all encoded within capitalism. God means patriarchy. God/Head rejects all of those things.

But God/Head doesn't reject God, and I wonder whether the idea of god it embraces is polytheistic. Within the frame of a sexual encounter, Chris' God genders masculine, but perhaps there are multiple frames, multiple gods implicit here. At the time of God/Head's London run, I was immersed in Adrienne Rich's extraordinary book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, and was struck by her cogent representation of the violence with which a plurality of gods were replaced by monotheism, and the ease with which the power of the matriarch could be destroyed once a unique masculine God was instituted. What if God/Head isn't about God, I wondered, but a goddess, a matriarch, a mother?

Listening to God/Head, inside and out, I felt acutely alert to images of the mother. This was particularly poignant in a sequence reconstructing Chris' experience of hypnoanalysis: he relates waking, terrified, from a nightmare that felt too real, vomiting with fear in the playground at school, comprehending nostalgia for the first time aged five – all overwhelming experiences in which his mother's consolation was impossible in the moment. Chris says that God “can see inside me, see through me. Can see me. For myself. All that I am”, and this, too, made me think about how mothers can see inside you and through you, have seen you naked and shockingly vulnerable, held you simultaneously with an awareness that your bones could be broken with a single snap. In looking at you, your mother sees all you have ever been, the baby, the toddler, the child, the teenager, the emergent adult. In wanting God, I began to think, Chris was expressing a longing for the mother, his mother. In the hours after appearing in God/Head, I realised with appalled grief that I had no idea how old Chris was when his mother died.

In the same way that God/Head might not be about God (or even “god”), there's a level at which it's not about Chris' own head, either. Of course, it's very precisely about Chris' head: we discover, incidentally, in the course of the conversation with the neurosurgeon, that Chris has at some point been diagnosed as bipolar. He wrote about some of the experiences described in God/Head – particularly the psychosis in the doctor's surgery, and the initial impact of anti-depressants – in a post on his blog in October 2006, when he watched Stephen Fry's documentary on bipolar disorder with a shock of self-recognition (thank you to long-time Chris-watcher Andrew Haydon for alerting me to this). The night the anti-depressants kicked in, he tells us in God/Head, he looks up at the night sky and sees: “Infinitely crosshatching lines connecting all of the stars.” It's possible to read that as his first apprehension of God; certainly Chris is willing to do so. But he also notes on the blog that his thinking and work have been profoundly influenced by “that sense of the connectedness of things”. The very first show by Chris I saw, perhaps in 2002, took my breath away with its tremblingly romantic play with the idea that we are all connected by the air that we breath. In looking specifically and honestly at the workings of Chris' own mind, God/Head looks at the human mind, human experience, the network of memory and perception that makes each individual who they are, the imperceptible lines linking childhood to adulthood, and adults to each other.

In the midst of depression, lines of connection, even to the people closest to you, fray and snap. The sense of isolation this engenders can be absolute and infrangible. And I'm not sure how much people who have never experienced depression comprehend of that. God/Head reaches through such isolation to offer companionship, communion, tenderness, understanding. It is emotionally naked, and that unvarnished honesty acts as an invitation: if I can say the terrifying things, so can you. And if we all say the terrifying things together, maybe we will feel less alone. It's not about God, it's not about heads, it's about togetherness: the specific togetherness created by theatre, and the communication it makes possible.

Let the action of the truth be inside you like the movement of a lover. Let the dread come. Let the anger come. Let yourself be humiliated and feel the relief of it.

The relief of being seen here. In this place. For who you are.
[Chris Goode, God/Head, Variation #5 – Ecstasy]

A connecting thread within the work of Chris Goode & Company is the argument that theatre is a place in which we rehearse other ways of living. In which it is possible to imagine an alternative to capitalism. God/Head demands a shift in the general understanding of depression, to encompass the idea that it is the body's reaction to a society that inculcates and promotes violence against nature and humanity. I had an intimation of this at the time of God/Head's London run, but I don't think I had the language to comprehend it; what I thought about instead, walking home from its final performance, was the difference between sadness and depression. When does one tip into the other? The first time smashing your head against a brick wall stops being a metaphor? The first time the thought of suicide is lucid and rational? The first time you sit crying uncontrollably and the sound ringing between your ears is: I want this to end? I didn't know.

But this notion of depression as a public as opposed to private feeling feels more challenging, and more vital. Its presence in God/Head has crystallised for me through reading I've done since, specifically of two soul-salving books, in which I find recourse in times of turmoil, Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell and Ann Cvetkovich's Depression: A Public Feeling. From Solnit [p62]:

Conventional therapy, necessary and valuable at times to resolve personal crises and suffering, presents a very incomplete sense of self. As a guide to the range of human possibility it is grimly reductive. It will help you deal with your private shames and pains, but it won’t generally have much to say about your society and your purpose on earth. It won’t even suggest, most of the time, that you provide yourself with relief from and perspective on the purely personal by living in the larger world. Nor will it ordinarily diagnose people as suffering from social alienation, meaninglessness, or other anomies that arise from something other than familial and erotic life. … Such a confinement of desire and possibility to the private serves the status quo as well: it describes no role for citizenship and no need for social change or engagement.

From Cvetkovich [with apologies for yoking together two separate quotes, from p13 and p2]:

Depression is another manifestation of forms of bio-power that produce life and death not only by targeting populations for overt destruction, whether through incarceration, war, or poverty, but also more insidiously by making people feel small, worthless, hopeless. … A political analysis of depression might advocate revolution and regime change over pills, but … there are no magic bullet solutions, whether medical or political, just the slow steady work of resilient survival, utopian dreaming, and other affective tools for transformation.

God/Head is an open-ended question, or the middle of a lifelong conversation, or an act of slow, steady work of resilient survival. In that 2006 blog on transcendence, bipolarity and the interconnectedness of the stars, Chris wrote: “I wonder, as a result of my own experience, how much genuine religious belief and 'spiritual' or transcendent experience is actually located in the movement of neurotransmitters. In other words, is G-d a primitive name for serotonin? (This is an incredibly reductive gloss on something I'd prefer to think about – and write about – a bit more carefully, but this doesn't feel like quite the time and place.)” In God/Head, he thought and wrote about that question a lot more carefully. The thinking and the writing go on.


The conversation that follows never happened. It's constructed from 10 separate conversations I had with other God/Head guests in the nine months that followed the Ovalhouse production: Chris Thorpe, Claire Burlington, Honour Bayes, Gerard Bell, Laura Mugridge, Angela Clerkin, Nic Conibere, Kieran Hurley, Ed Collier and Tom Hughes. At the time of talking, I was fascinated by the minutiae of their individual experiences, curious to know how theirs compared, step-by-step, with mine. The painfully slow, pleasurably intense focus of transcribing gave me some necessary distance, and illuminated the bigger questions, relating to the role of the guest, our various interpretations of the show and our sense of its impact. Speaking to these smart, impassioned, curious people was like shining God/Head through a prism: so many surprising colours, thoughts and ideas emerged the other side. I'm hugely grateful that they gave me their time.

Maddy: The role of the guest felt very clear to me when I was on stage with Chris: I was someone from the audience sitting by his side, everyone else's representative within the storytelling frame; and I was the company he needed to be able to perform this big, difficult, intense show night after night. So I was really surprised when I started reading the reviews, and encountered more than one that said the guest was perhaps unnecessary, or the format was forced or hadn't been thought through. What's your sense of the necessity of the guest in God/Head?
Honour: Chris had a really lonely, shocking experience and I think he wanted to have someone with him to give him the courage to engage with that. But also I think his rational, pre-religious-experience mind felt the need for a kind of anchor, something solid, to create a centre or context as his religious and emotional mind went everywhere. The guest added another layer, another relationship, to the space – in the same way that God has added another relationship to his space. His world is usually the audience and his work; now it's the audience and his work and God. So in a sense it couldn't just be him and the audience: it had to be the audience, someone else, and then him.
Maddy: We're both people who write about theatre rather than perform in it: did you have any misgivings about taking part?
Honour: Totally. I was really scared about the performance. Also, I was nervous about spending the whole day with Chris, not because I don't like him, but because I'm quite impressed by him. But he was really nurturing, I felt like I was being given space for the first time ever really to talk about myself. I really enjoyed walking with him to the theatre: this is completely my religious upbringing, but I felt a certain sense of being a disciple. There are stories of Jesus walking with friends, and of the disciples walking together, hearing the stories of Jesus, and I felt a sense of that maybe.
Maddy: That makes it sound so self-indulgent!
Gerard: I think the guest performed the function of making it less self-indulgent, because it was sharing the fact that we all have odd experiences. Also, having two people in dialogue with each other, and supportive of each other, is quite playful.
Laura: From an audience point of view, it's interesting to have someone on stage who doesn't know what they're doing. It highlights the fact that life is unpredictable. Chris had to deal with a guest who could say anything. I don't feel like I was there to feed Chris' ego: he was involving a guest as an unpredictable force, and a symbol that what happened to him was really unexpected.
Kieran: You're making manifest a sense of not knowing what happens next, of being unsure of yourself and whether or not you're doing it right, and a sense of feeling like you might be judged in ways you have no control over. If we were to remove the guest performer, whole chunks of the show would stop making sense, because it's really important for the audience to experience risk and vulnerability.
Nic: I'm interested in what the piece would have become if every single time, with absolute sincerity, I hadn't followed Chris' instructions. I found myself questioning the role of the guest: I wasn't sure why I was there or why it was a different guest every night. I felt like an effect, in the same way the music is an effect: I was very present, and contributing to a sense of mood or tone, but being me didn't matter. That comes partly from not being able to see the show from the audience.
Ed: I didn't want to go back to see it. The people Chris was working with on stage were bringing a very personal response to it and I wanted to continue thinking about it rather than see someone else's interpretation.
Maddy: That's interesting: I didn't feel like I was interpreting it – although I also feel like I didn't “perform” especially well because of that. What do you think you brought?
Ed: I didn't feel like I was adding to it artistically: I was the other half of the internal dialogue in Chris' head. There was a conversation being presented, rather than a monologue, but the conversation was entirely internal to Chris. What the extra person brought to the experience was the ability for Chris to talk to himself without appearing to do so – which made people consider the story more actively.
Nic: Thinking about it, I'm Chris in this scenario: I'm suddenly rendered lost, uncertain; I have some external stimulus but I don't really know why I'm here, I don't really know what I'm doing. These questions are at the base of religious concerns: why am I here? Why am I doing this? How am I relating to these people? Then there's this sense that there is this person around me, I don't really know what he's doing because I'm worried about the minutiae of daily life, and this greater presence is dictating the wider experience.
Claire: Chris was making an experience for the audience, which reflected what he had experienced; sometimes the guest was God, and at times was God's plaything – and Chris was those things as well. What was really astounding for me about being in the show was the removal of responsibility. I felt this kind of exhilarating relief of not being in charge, of just following someone else's plan. At the end I thought, if that's what people feel when they have a belief in a god, that it's not all their responsibility, that must be really nice.
Angela: If I'd been in performance mode, I'd have felt a responsibility to entertain. But Chris didn't want that. One of my first questions on the day was: are you asking me to be a performer or to be a human being? He said: I'm asking you to be a human being. Like you said, Maddy, I think he was also asking for somebody to sit with him. When someone is in extremis – and he was in extremis when he was doing the show, he was talking about times when he has been – the best thing you can do is just to be with them. That can be quite hard, but these are also very precious experiences. A friend of mine was almost dying – as it turned out they didn't die – but in that moment of thinking they were going to die, they were so beautiful, because they were without ego. Everything was gone. Somehow that was connected to the show: although Chris is very much alive, there was a lot of tearing down the outside eye watching himself. He was prepared to do that. And the guest gives the audience space in that intensity, a way to see how other people are reacting. A woman came up to me at the end and said having the guest was fantastic, because: “You were us. We can't say stuff, we're just feeling it, and you were saying it, saying the things I was thinking about.” … In some ways Chris was playing God. When he asked us to build a house of cards, I found that hilarious, because I felt I was being given a task by God and He was laughing at me because I couldn't do it. I thought: this is like life, life is a house of cards and I'm fucking useless at it, and I'm laughing away because I feel watched and at the same time I know the people watching aren't interested in me, they're more interested in him.
Maddy: Although we keep mentioning God, I wasn't ever sure the show was “about” God. What was your sense of what it was about?
Chris: It was a relief to me that the show wasn't Chris talking about his sudden conversion to being a practising religious person, not that I really suspected it would be. I was glad God was in the show but not religion: that was a useful distinction. So it's about what we load on to the word God, and whether that matters, and whether we're all striving towards the same expression of awareness or lack of awareness of something.
Claire: A human searching.
Gerard: As an audience member, you can take it either way. It leaves the possibility of God open. That's part of the value of the piece: hardly anybody who works in these areas will take on these questions.
Ed: Yes, it questions all assumptions in an area in which people are very stuck in their silos. You have somebody who felt very confident in their universal view of who they were, and the moral and ethical foundation of their decision-making process, starting again, with a genuine and honest re-examining of their world-view.
Chris: Taking multiple perspectives on a singular experience – singular in the sense of removed from anything that the world had manifested to them in any way before – according to their own past experience, but also analysing the situation in terms of their own artistic development.
Maddy: Which is where the multiple modes of performance, and the fact that the second dream sequence, which closes the show, describes a real performance Chris created for Tate Modern, come into play. (I didn't see that show: Claire remembers it though.)
Nic: I have a friend who thinks God/Head is completely about theatre and the construction of theatre.
Gerard: I think Chris was right to make the distinction that it wasn't a religious experience – except I think it was, it was a type of spiritual experience. I grew up Catholic, and I recognise the way he perceived it from reading about other people's similar experiences.
Maddy: Do you believe in God yourself?
Gerard: Well no, I don't think I do. I was very pleased to be asked to be a guest, because I wanted to come a bit closer to that question. There was a part of me that thought, it would be great if Chris had been convinced by his experience.
Maddy: It's so much easier when someone can decide for you!
Ed: As a devout atheist from a long line of quite religious people, I think God/Head manifested belief without a need to have a god figure at the top of it. The human brain has a need to live on, for want of a better word, a “spiritual” plane, but I don't think that means there are gods and fairies: I think the human brain requires stories and things beyond what it can see in order to work.
Tom: It's about ways of being in the world almost, and the difficulty of being in the world when you can see it for what it is. And how God, in whatever manifestation, can help you get through that – and perhaps treatment and medication for mental illness is one substitution for that god. Treatment is one way of calming down the panic, the hysteria that comes with fully realising the chaos of being in the world, and that nothing has any meaning. Ignoring it is another.
Kieran: It's about the bigness and beauty and painfulness all at once of everything. That's a thing to say about a work of art! In reflecting on this one experience from different angles again and again, it's about the experience of being aware of the massiveness and overwhelming sorrow and beauty of being alive. And how that massiveness and overwhelming sorrow and beauty is also bound up with the ways in which we're all connected to each other, but at the same time separate from each other. So it's about fear and courage in the face of that.
Maddy: At the point in the show where, via an instruction hidden in an envelope, the guest is invited to engage Chris in a conversation about the one thing we most want to tell or ask him, fear and courage were uppermost in my mind. I talked about some of the ways in which I'd witnessed him inviting his collaborators and others (especially in the context of Open House) to be brave, but also assuring them that it's OK not to feel brave enough; then I asked him about his own relationship with courage, to tell me about something he had done that, after the event, had made him think: wow, I did that, I managed to get through that. Do you remember what you said to or asked Chris?
Angela: I told him to keep on doing. Life is about continually jumping off a cliff and not knowing if you have a parachute. If we worry about the parachutes the whole time we won't do it. And there's enormous freedom and feeling of life when we do jump.
Claire: That was an interesting moment for me because what I wanted to tell Chris was how much I like him, even though we don't see each other very often. I thought: I can't say that, that's ridiculous. But he asked me to say what I most wanted to say, so the question became: can I do the truthful thing? Am I brave enough to do it? And because the show is about that, I thought, I have to do the truthful thing.
Nic: I was really struck by how courageous he was: I would find it incredibly difficult and provocative and challenging if I declared to most of my friends that I now believe in God. My question came from a place of admiration, I asked something like, how do you find the strength when you're afraid or down – and then he threw it back at me!
Maddy: I remember that so clearly: he said he hadn't done this during the rest of the run, but he couldn't answer.
Nic: Because it was too close to what was going to follow. It was maddening, really funny.
Tom: I'd gotten increasingly concerned during the first part of the show that he might not be entirely safe. There was something slightly out-of-control about it, and I really wanted him to be OK. So I asked him, are you all right? And he paused for fucking ages – I remember thinking, I've broken Chris Goode! I've ruined the show! – then he said: “That's a good question. Yeah, I'm OK.”
Kieran: This was the second moment in the day when the relationship between honest engagement and the aesthetics of structure became really quite complicated for me.
Maddy: Oh, what was the first moment?
Kieran: The first was when we arrived at the rehearsal room at Ovalhouse and it began to dawn on me that, when walking to the theatre, Chris might have deliberately selected topics of conversation in order to create relevant material. Arguably he didn't. But this happened a few times over the course of the day. I don't want to talk about authenticity versus artifice or anything like that, but there's something interesting about how genuine, honest, compassionate human interaction exists in the same space as aesthetic decisions around the necessary premeditated structuring process of making art. I hadn't spoken to Chris much about his experience which is at the heart of God/Head, so I got caught up in his discussion of it in the show. I know from when I perform Hitch, it's not me on stage, even three years ago it was a version of me that wasn't quite real, so of course I'm familiar with what this is, but you nevertheless get caught up in it. So the thing I most wanted to say to him, as someone who cares about him, and is caught up in the vulnerability of where his character if you like is at in that story, knowing it comes from a real place, the thing I most wanted to say to him was: don't be scared, it's going to be OK. So that's what I said. Then later in the show he's reflecting on his experience and says, I'm not scared any more. In many ways that's really lovely – but it was also emotionally strange, because it reveals that the he who made the show is not scared any more. When I was telling him, it's OK, please don't be scared, I meant it, but I didn't need to tell him, I just thought I needed to because of this strange interaction between the presented and the re-presented, the structured/codified and the real.
Maddy: Did anyone ask about God?
Laura: I said, if you now believe in God, does this mean you think the Bible is true? And he said: no, I think the Bible is real. So good!
Honour: Something I picked up from his story is that he talks about his experience or God in quite a sexualised way. There's a lot of pseudo-eroticism around Christ on the cross, so I asked if he sees his relationship with this being in any way sexual. And he said he did, that he feels pinned down by something that is looking at him and examining him and in a way it has almost the ecstasy of orgasm, but also the ecstasy of acute pain. He sees it as being like an open wound.
Maddy: That pain was scary to me. I found the days after God/Head so difficult, partly because I was struggling to process the immensity of all that talking, but also because of this enormous anxiety I felt for Chris. How did you feel afterwards?
Laura: It was a very odd experience: in the afternoon I'd announced that I was pregnant, and Chris said he'd had a bombshell from basically everybody. That's incredibly tiring for him. It was the first time I'd performed obviously pregnant, wearing a dress that showed the bump; that was a huge adrenaline thing for me, but I also felt a bit guilty, because I was keen to present myself as a pregnant woman but it wasn't my show. Primarily I was just overwhelmed to be asked: Chris' show The Adventures of Woundman and Shirley was a real point of inspiration for me, so I was flattered that he wanted to work with me, and really nervous.
Honour: I'm quite an anxious person anyway, and I realised through doing it actually I'm really anxious. I felt as though I overpolished it, I didn't take enough chances, all my answers were too prosaic, I was too panicky when it was happening. I felt amazingly insecure afterwards: it revealed a lot of things to me that I didn't know were in my personality.
Maddy: Neither of you got to see it after you performed in it, which I found really helpful in calming some of that insecurity. It's what Angela said: he wasn't looking for performances from us, he just wanted us to be human beings.
Honour: During the day I was also aware that Chris had taken on this colossal burden, going through this intense process with different people every single day for three weeks. My dad is a bishop, and I've seen him push himself through his faith to do things that he doesn't really want to do. He's a very introverted man, yet spends a lot of his time speaking to people he would really not want to, and he does it because of his faith. In my head there's an analogy there with Chris' experience: a Christ-like taking on of burdens, which is exhausting to him. The intensity of the day, and of trying to help him carry these things, took a layer off me, and if it took a layer off me, I can't even imagine how many it took off Chris.
Maddy: Absolutely, I felt that too. And yet, right at the end of the show, I felt euphoric, bouncing off the walls with excitement.
Angela: I totally felt like I'd taken a love drug. I absolutely loved everyone. I recognised it as a feeling I got sometimes doing Lifegame with Improbable [an improvised show in which someone is interviewed live on stage and the performers enact scenes from the person's life]: it's when you feel you've been in the presence of humanity. That sounds really wanky, but when somebody's been prepared to be really honest, and risk that honesty not knowing how it will be received, I find that very, very beautiful. When people share their painful bits and their difficult bits and the less acceptable bits and the less palatable bits, I feel a total sense of relief as a human being that I'm not alone, and that it's possible to say it out loud and the sky not fall down. I think there's a lot of us feeling the sky will fall down if we tell the truth, and actually in a way it keeps it up, because it makes those connections between people possible.
Nic: Once I got over the “eek! All these people are looking at me” thing, and once the tasks became more mundane, I got to a place where I was really enjoying being there. I just thought, I'm in a situation where I can't fail, everything I do here is right, and that's really pleasing. I really enjoyed closing the show and being the last person on stage. Immediately afterwards, though, I didn't really talk to Chris: it was the last night, and I think he felt he hadn't done very well, and he was worn out. So it was a bit odd that we spent the day together, then didn't really speak to each other. That was quite weird.
Tom: There was something very dark about going back into the dressing room to Chris. I can't put my finger on why, but it's something I haven't witnessed in a performer before. I'd had a good day, and felt really calm and serene, and like I'd been part of something quite special. But the feeling went away quickly, and the next day I felt less moved and less taken by it. My partner felt it was self-indulgent; I didn't, but I felt like it wasn't an unqualified success. Although great thought went into the form of the show, in the way that there were several movements which rhymed with each other but weren't quite the same, and the differences between them were quite eloquent, at the same time I felt they weren't entirely clear for an audience.
Maddy: One of the oddities of this conversation is that it squashes time: I spoke to Chris Thorpe in March 2012 and Tom in November 2012 and the others at various points in between. So you're thinking back to the show from varying distances, which I've conflated in putting this together. It's now February 2014, and you've all had an email from me with another question: what's the residue of God/Head for you? Do you find yourself thinking about it at all, and in what circumstances?
Nic: I can't think of common factors for circumstances in which it comes to mind, but when it does, it makes me think of the particular freedom that comes from responding to tasks, and a certain quality of attention it permitted me for the present. It was a way of engaging in being in a place and in relation to this other person that I don't often experience, and this heightened attention to the present moment is its own kind of release from how I attend to my behaviours and relationships on most days. When I recall it, I recall it as a kind of freedom.
Angela: Most frequently I recall Chris' angry rant, which was performed almost like a sermon. I felt excited, stirred up and energised by it, and I've realised how infrequently I feel such strong emotions in the theatre and how important this is to me – to feel humanly connected, to know deep in my bones that anger is an energy rather than a negative emotion, an essential energy needed to transform our world into a fairer, better world. I've thought quite a lot about the role of the guest, too: from within the show, I felt happy to be there, and a sense of why I was there, but sat within the audience I was much less clear and convinced about the role, the need for it, what it brought to the piece. The role of witness was already being looked after, inhabited, by the audience, and the unplanned moments didn't have the frisson, the danger I felt having a different guest each night somehow promises.
Gerard: I was aware then, and more so now, of performing more than I would want to. As a performer, how hard it is not to go into performance mode, even when you don't want to – ever want to. How much do we smooth things out? Is unease preferable? How much are you being and how much performing a version of yourself? Or: find a performative version that allows you to be, as much as is possible. These questions are a useful residue.
Maddy: Wheeling back to the original conversations, my very first, with Chris Thorpe – who also happened to be the guest on the first show of the run – ended with me saying: is there anything you'd like to ask me?
Chris: Has it changed you?
Maddy: Ooh! That's really interesting. I don't know. Do you feel it changed you?
Chris: Everything you do on stage changes you in terms of what you think are the possibilities of what you can do on stage, so I think there are certain things I've taken away that will affect the way I do stuff. But it's too early to tell about change, anything I say right now I'd just be making it up on the fly.
Honour: This is such a bullshitty thing to say, but it's made me really question my practice. I talked to Chris about the reviews and he seemed genuinely wounded by them, especially by Lyn [Gardner] saying it's not an emotional show. He said if she'd just written, “for me, it's not an emotional show”, that would have made such a big difference. I have this lingering memory of sadness, because my last interaction with him was talking about that. And it's really made me question the responsibility one has when one writes, and take that seriously, especially with something as fragile as this. 


For years now I've had an unrequited love story in my head and at the beginning of 2012 I finally sat down to write it. After 5000 words, I realised I despised my tone of voice as a fiction writer and trashed everything. But the story lingered. The day before I accepted Chris' invitation to be part of God/Head, I was thinking again about one of its characters when I unexpectedly had a conversation with a mum from my daughter's school, who told me something about herself that illuminated this character anew. Our chance conversation felt like a gift, and as I walked on, I felt a rush of exquisite joy. I looked up into the clear blue sky, so perfect, so huge, yet so intimate in its embrace of me and the buildings and the trees and all our lives, and I said in the quietest of breaths: Dear God, thank you.

And then I frowned down at the pavement and thought: what the fuck did I do that for?

I spent a lot of the first year after God/Head thinking back on how I reacted to the show and wondering: what the fuck did I do that for? Within an hour or two of appearing in it, I started crying and didn't stop for three days. In a sense that's an exaggeration: I have a family, my mother was staying over, it was my son's third birthday, we hosted his party. As long as I was with people, I managed to hold myself together, but the minute I closed a door behind me I fell apart.

It's odd because that's not how I felt as I flew off the stage: I was buzzing, euphoric, effervescent. I had a rollercoaster lurch in my stomach finding Chris in the dressing room, quiet and grave; he couldn't allow himself to feel that adrenaline, he needed stillness to do this night after night. We talked a little about the depression I'd experienced over the winter, the noises my mum had been making about me seeing a doctor and maybe being prescribed medication, my tentative exploration of the idea of counselling. But it was clear Chris needed silence and space. Downstairs I chatted with friends who'd come to see the show, then went home. And like someone who has consumed a lot of alcohol but doesn't realise how drunk they are until the cold air hits them, I walked through my door and realised that my skin was gone. It had been stripped from my body and I felt raw and exposed and in pain. But that pain wasn't just about me. It was about Chris, and about my mum, and about my daughter, and about God. And all I could do was cry.

I don't think I was very careful with myself that day. It had begun with a conversation with my mum, sitting in a public square behind Oxford Circus, about the film Precious. We talked about her childhood experience of being verbally and physically attacked by my grandmother; I'm lucky, she said, I was never sexually abused. From there I walked to meet Chris through some of my favourite bits of London, the streets I melted into trying to avoid marriage, the bridge I stood on as midnight struck on my 30th birthday, the Dickensian road my husband and I thought about living on. By the time I arrived, I was engulfed by nostalgia.

As the starting point of our work together on God/Head, Chris laid eight emotive questions out on the table, asking me to tell him, for instance, about “An occasion when the beauty of something other than a work of art made you cry”, or “A time you were in a lot of pain and it was really important that you didn’t show it”. I remember thinking: these are questions that demand honesty, and I'm going to give you that. And yet, I was startled by the avalanche of memories that this exercise inspired. During God/Head, Chris describes how hypnoanalysis works:

What happens is you’re put into a hypnotic state where you’re very relaxed, and memories, events from your past, just start coming to mind, and you describe them. You describe them as if they were present tense. I’m standing here and I can see these things and this is how I’m feeling.

You describe the scene quite quickly, you don’t analyse it, and neither does the therapist. They just say: Link that on. And something else comes to mind. You might understand what the link is, or you might not. But you have this constellation of memories and unresolved feelings and they’re all linked. Tangled up. Childhood things. Mostly.

That's what our conversation was like. Me talking and crying and Chris listening and a constellation of memories and unresolved feelings, all linked. Stuff I'd told no one else. And I remember feeling stabs of guilt: this is too much. Is everyone doing this? How is he coping? And something more selfish and bloody-minded: at your invitation, I am giving myself to you. Just as you asked.

One of the questions I answered invited me to recall: “A time as an adult when you realized you were feeling something you’d never felt before.” This is the story I told:

I'm walking down Brixton Road, on a night in maybe 2004. It's early evening, spring or autumn, fairly warm, and twilight. I'm rushing because I'm late for a run-through with my dance group, the Actionettes: we're performing together that night. I'm speed-walking past the Texaco when suddenly my body is stilled by the total, unquestionable knowledge that there is no god. I've never really believed in God, and my family aren't particularly religious, but my mother has always felt that there's a cosmic force in the universe, and I've been content to agree. But now I know that there's nothing: there's just us humans scratching away on earth and our existence is utterly meaningless. We're here and then we die and that is all. I look up at the darkening blue sky and it is vast and empty and terrifying. The air feels two degrees colder and all the noises around me are louder and more menacing. And I feel tiny, stupid and numb.

The conversation is already enough, but then Chris and I walk to Ovalhouse together along the same route I walked on the evening of the 7/7 bombings, and on the night that my husband proposed to me, under a streetlamp on this very side street, and nostalgia engulfs me again. It's as if my entire life to this moment in time is splayed out before me, every hope, every regret, every thwarted desire, everything that's happy and everything that hurts. My head is swimming. But it's OK.

The performance is odd: I know I'm not quite good enough at any of it, whether devising movements with Chris for the fourth variation of the story, following his instructions accurately, or reading out the bits of script. But I also know it doesn't matter: on stage, I feel consistently as though I'm simply a member of the audience who happens to be sitting in a different seat. I'm aware of being watched, but unaware; self-conscious, and entirely free. I feel protected. And exhilarated.

But whatever protects me on stage abandons me in my own home. I feel as though I've been repeatedly punched: by the conversation with my mum, by the relentlessness of my own memory, by the quasi-therapy session I've undergone with Chris. But my distress isn't entirely self-centred. I'm distraught about Chris, incredibly worried that he's taken on an impossible freight, not only in performing the show but in conducting these fraught conversations with his guests day after day. I'm horrified to recognise the magnetic pull of self-harm in the dialogue with the teenage boy that we read together: it makes me wonder whether I know Chris at all. His isolation appals me. Later (too late) I discover I'm not alone in thinking these things: six days after guesting, I see Chris perform with his close friend Theron, who acknowledges a sense of guilt that Chris seems so lonely; two days after that, Nic Conibere tells him that, although they've been friends for almost two decades, “I always feel like I'm just getting to know you.”

Most of all, I'm terrified of the image of Chris – and myself – that I see in my daughter, then almost five. When invited to ask Chris a question, I ask him about courage: to tell me about a time when he looked back on something he had been frightened of doing and thought, wow, I did that, I managed to do that. In my small-minded way, I expected him to tell me about something involved with performing theatre; instead, he talked about reaching adulthood and looking back on himself as a child, struggling through primary school, and thinking: wow, little chap, that was really hard, but you did it, you survived. At the time, my daughter was struggling through her first year at primary school; she was overwhelmed by the imposing building, the size of her class, the noise of the children at lunchtime. She made it through because her amazing teacher very quickly recognised the small animal cries she would make in these moments of distress and each time gave her the individual support she needed. I don't recall being that sympathetic to her at all.

I found my daughter's reflection elsewhere in God/Head, particularly in the hypnoanalysis section, when Chris described comprehending nostalgia, which had happened to my daughter just a few weeks before. The more I read in Chris' experiences a longing for his mother, the more I examined my own actions as a mother and found them wanting. A part of that failure was rooted in a depression I experienced across the winter, during which the thought that froze my brain was: this world is not good enough, or safe enough, or kind enough, or supportive enough, to bring children into it. Their future looks abysmal. For those months, making human beings was the most irresponsible thing I had ever done. It still is.

A year, two years, later, I look back on that weekend and part of me is startled by its fragility and pain. But I'm also aware of the periodic (and indeed period-related) recurrence of those feelings, before and since. As Chris says in God/Head, I'm wary of medicalising this; generally I'm OK, or not not OK. There are times when I'm luminously happy. I'm capable of enjoying life simply for what it is: imperfect, banal, routine. But there are times when I wonder if I'm still assimilating that encounter with god's absence on Brixton Road. On my worst days, I'm suffocated by the meaninglessness of my existence, by the knowledge that life is simultaneously too short to achieve anything of worth and too long to be worth the effort of plodding from day to day to day. And then I sit very still and hope to hear the whisper pulsing somewhere inside my chest: hold on. Hold on. This too will pass.

It's a chilly day at the beginning of winter 2009. The trees are bare, the sky is grouchy grey, I'm already cold and there are months of this to come. I'm walking through Clapham Common pushing my two grizzling children who refuse to nap in their beds, no matter how tired they are, in a borrowed double buggy that says things I find insulting about me. The buggy is heavy and my heart is a lump of lead. I am exhausted and I don't know why I'm doing this, why I have children, why I have no space for myself, when this will end. And then a woman approaches me. Her skin is very dark and she wears a black coat and she tells me she had to come and speak to me because she has a message from God, for me. God has asked her to tell me that there will be no more tears. Just that. Her face is so tender, I can't throw this back at her. So I say thank you, thank you for telling me. And I walk away thinking: you're wrong. There is no God, and if there is a God, He's wrong. There will be more tears, more and more. I look over my shoulder, thinking maybe I should go and tell her, but she's gone. Vanished into the knife-sharp air.

The images are:
An astronomical image I found in a blog
Vija Celmins: Star Field III
William Blake: The Ancient of Days
These are not used with permission, and will be removed on request.

With thanks to the guests who gave me their time for Part II:
Chris Thorpe: guest 21 February 2012; we spoke 22 March 2012
Ed Collier: guest 22 February 2012, we spoke 18 October 2012
Angela Clerkin: guest 24 February 2012; we spoke 20 April 2012
Kieran Hurley: guest 25 February 2012; we spoke 16 May 2012
Gerard Bell: guest 28 February 2012; we spoke 15 April 2012
Tom Hughes: guest 29 February 2012; we spoke 7 November 2012
Claire Burlington: guest 1 March 2012; we spoke 29 March 2012
[I was guest on 2 March 2012]
Honour Bayes: guest 7 March 2012; we spoke 30 March 2012
Laura Mugridge: guest 9 March 2012; we spoke 18 April 2012 
Nic Conibere: guest 10 March 2012; we spoke 27 April 2012

With immense gratitude to Chris, for space to think this through, for the nudge I needed to get this finished, for trust, for inspiration.

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