Intimacy. It’s an oft-used word. It’s an oft mis-used word. People talk about intimate gigs and intimate theatres. But in those contexts what they essentially mean is small.
I feel that genuine intimacy is something more complicated. Yes, it is about closeness. But closeness both in its literal sense and in a messier one; it’s about desire, honesty and reciprocity. There were undoubtedly two shows at Edinburgh this year that had these qualities in spades and, in the midst of the festival’s increasingly unbearable whirligig of hype and tat and superficial spectacle, utterly stopped me in my tracks.
Rotozaza’s Etiquette is sweetly mesmerising little show, perfectly combining high-concept happening-inspired participation with a charmingly simple story borrowed from Jean Luc Godard. Two people sit opposite each other at a café table scattered with props. Through instructions relayed to them via headphones they begin to talk to each other; a conversation, a story and a discrete private universe follow.
Whether it would pass Chris’ cat-test is debatable and technology-wise the show is dictated almost entirely by a pre-recorded score. And yet in the stumbling intimacy of the words that you and your partner speak, the show is remade every time, entirely singular, unpredictable, meaningful and resolutely intimate. Its joy lies in the fragile relationship conjured between two friends. Gazing into the eyes of your partner you are at once staring at a friend and a character; locations shimmer in and out of being. And buried somewhere in lines you feed each other, and the actions you carry out, there is a wonderful, liberating honesty.
The same could absolutely be said of Melanie Wilson’s Simple Girl, a similarly fragile and self-consciously fictional little show, full of gentle sadness and fading romance. Dressed in a long black coat and looking like something that had slipped unnoticed out of a cold war spy thriller, Mel told a series of increasingly meandering stories into an old radio microphone, gazing longingly out at the audience in front of her. Her conversations with the them in between these stories had exactly the kind of stumbling intimacy of Etiquette, drawing us into her melancholy little world.
Together these shows (along with Chris’ own Hippo World Guest Book) absolutely made my festival. All three had a subtle, unspectacular beauty to them. They may not have been important, they may not have happened in big rooms and (indeed) none of them were particularly financially successful (or at least that’s what I’ve heard from the people who made them). And yet, lost as they have been in the Edinburgh scrum, they nonetheless sparkled with humour, warmth and ideas. And though none could be called explicitly political, to me they all seemed to throb with a sadness; a loss of hope in people’s ability to communicate with each other and to love each other. But rather than just saying this, they all seemed in their own ways to be doing something really meaningful about it.
And with that it’s back down to London. Although, after a year and a half I still feel like I’m searching for a purchase on where things actual happen down here. Beyond the usual suspects (National, Young Vic, BAC etc) I’m somewhat lost. Unsurprisingly then the two shows that really stood out for me were both at major theatres.
Again, it won’t surprise people to know that one of them was Attempts on Her Life. Before we even get to Katie Mitchell, it’s absolutely worth saying that Martin Crimp’s text is an example of the best, most tantalising, most theatrical writing for theatre that you can imagine; a spectral, poetic, complex bundle of character-less lines of dialogue, longing to be realised in some specific, local way.
It’s little wonder then Crimp and Mitchell seem to enjoy each other so much. This year they have had numerous collaborations at the National and the Young Vic (on a translation of a short Brecht play) and next year they are off to the court for Crimp’s new play The City. Unperturbed by the catcalls of critics demanding she honour a text by rendering it tepid and utterly bland, untainted by direction, Mitchell resolutely re-interprets a text for her, unencumbered by any claim to universality or definiteness (certainly you could never accuse her of creating the definitive version of anything).
Though far from perfect, Attempts was brave, it was ambitious, it was thoughtful, it was thrilling. More than any other show I have seen it demonstrated the potential for video technology in theatre. Not as some kind of dynamic backdrop but as a way of conjuring two competing worlds. Losing oneself in the fractured unreality of both, it became impossible to say which was a simulacrum of the other. The swirling figures in red dresses seemed hopeless, lost ghosts in a world so permeated and dictated by cinema, television and digital spectacle that it had written itself out of existence.
If the Edinburgh shows underlined the importance of an intimate, personal, local engagement, of people coming together in a room and looking at each and talking to each other (telling stories together), then Attempts undoubtedly spoke of the hopeless alternative.
Undoubtedly these three or four shows stood out for me. They were the first that sprung into mind when I began thinking about this list. The last took a little longer. I’d almost completely forgotten it, and yet, in its own way it was every bit as wonderful as the previous shows.
It’s not entirely my fault, Debbie Tucker Green’s Generations at Young Vic was only 40 minutes long. It was a seemingly simple piece of writing, presented fairly realistically in the round; a bustling extended family cooking in an African kitchen while a chorus of singers stood with the audience crammed around the edges. And yet, as I think I said at the time, I have rarely seen a show that resonated with so much loss.
As a simple six or seven minute kitchen was repeated each time with a new member of the family missing, until the same once-crowded joyful scene was played out with only two mourning grandparents left, lines took on new sadness, spoke of new absences. It was a simple, hauntingly effective technique beautifully executed; you could feel the silences in the air. And again it was a show that in its intricate form, without mention of wars or famines or AIDS epidemics, said something profoundly political. Debbie Tucker Green, like Crimp, is undoubtedly a writer for theatre, with breathtaking love for and understanding of her medium.
And that’s it really. I also enjoyed Australian company Back to Back’s Small Metal Objects, Katie Mitchell’s Women of Troy and puppeteers Blind Summit’s loving homage to Charles Bukowski, Low Life. I wish I’d seen Uninvited Guest’s It is Like it Ought to be, Chris Goode’s Speed Death of the Radiant Child and Third Angel's Presumption but try as I might I was utterly useless at doing so.
Music-wise Jens Lekman, Andrew Bird and the National all released beautiful melancholy albums, full of lovely turns of phrase, sweet, simple melodies and some gorgeously lush arrangements. LCD Soundsystem were once again effortlessly catchy and clever, and Of Montreal, Animal Collective and Battles created amazing albums; bouncy, dense, infectious and utterly awesome.
And undoubtedly my favourite film of the year was David Fincher’s Zodiac; a grand, rambling saga following a series of gruesome murders in San Francisco. Masquerading as a simple detective thriller it slowly teased itself into a psychological study of obsession, it’s unstructured, sprawling style mimicking the futile attempts to ensnare the killer.
And in the New Year I’m mainly looking forward to the chance to actually stop boring people endlessly with the shows that I’m going to do and actually get up and do them. Hopefully we have a couple of things lined up in various corners of the South Coast and maybe one in London as well. We’ll see. It’s all very exciting and undoubtedly you lovely people will be the first to know when anything’s confirmed.