May 23, 2008
May 20, 2008
Pull open the small wooden doors into the grand hall and the first thing that strikes you is the bigness.
The Grand Hall is vast
This feeling only grows as you step echoingly out into its emptiness. You pull away from the safety of the low ceilinged entrance into the full hugeness of the main hall, cast adrift in an ocean of space.
The Grand Hall is really fucking vast.
It is shiny wooden floorboads racing off into the distance. It is arches rearing up into the sky. It is a crane your neck your neck up up upwards vaulted ceiling. It is a pipe organ stolen from the gods. It is door after door after door after door. It is window after window after window. It is dizzying. Vertigo-inducing. It is symphonic.
It is vulgar in its bigness. Bigness is all it seems to strive for. Look closer and it is tattered and sad around the edges. Cracked panes of glass. Peeling paint. Smashed ceiling panels revealing the gaping blackness of the attic above. Discarded wires and microphones and out of date sound equipment litter its corners. It is not quite nice enough to be grand or regal or majestic, not quite derelict enough to be eerie or resonant or atmospheric. It is more cumbersome than it is colossal. More sad than melancholic. More injured than ruined. It is the girl with the hunched shoulders forced to play netball against her will. It is Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in history, with his glasses, and his hand-made shoes and his quiet, lonely smile staring out from an old black and white photo.
The Grand Hall is almost apologetically big. Cumbersome. And though we are dwarfed by it, tiny and child-like and insignificant, you can’t help but have a tenderness towards this gentle giant. This fragile, elephantine creature.
These are some of the things I remember:
I have seen the severed arm of a polystyrene angel bathed in dusty white light in front of a lighting rig hanging in the darkness
I have watched an army of tiny well dressed children jumping up and down in front of row upon row upon row of empty chairs
I have seen cycled across its squeaking, whirring floor in great glorious circles in an otherwise empty building
I have stood at its centre, staring out at nothing, listening to music
Here are some things I’d like to see:
A ladder made of white bed sheets dropping gently to the ground from one of the holes in high, high up in the ceiling
Two people standing at opposite ends of the hall, in almost total darkness, watching each other, listening quietly to the same piece of music played on headphones
A giant game of tag
A bed to lie on in the middle of the empty hall and listen to the story of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man in history
May 19, 2008
How fucking romantic. All the stars are out. Twinkling, twinkling, twinkling. Fluttering about.
Stephen Merritt’s low drawl is a bruised apple wrapped in a thick hard layer of treacly sarcasm. At its heart it’s soft and wounded and desperate for love.
Rosie Dennis stands in an empty spotlight in a shiny green top. She moves, not in time to the music but with it. She is hard and definite and sharp and precise, but this jagged physicality is only the outward display of something gentler, something softer, something hearbreakingly familiar.
Someone once did a study that showed that the things we are most disturbed by are the things most like ourselves. Zombies, aliens, robots, ghosts - things that are like us but not quite us. Things ever so slightly estranged. Unreal.
This is I think why Rosie Dennis unique style is so utterly engaging. Her movements are so familiar. The ticks, the shakes, the tension, the moments of sudden release, like someone on the verge of a suffocating panic attack, like Ian Curtis on the verge of a seizure, like anyone swallowing their anger and their pain and their frustration and carrying on with what they were doing. The same could be said of her words, a looping, repetitive anxious chatter, she stutters through words and sentences with an all-too-familiar mixture of fear and confidence; so very sure you want to say something, not sure exactly how to say it, not sure if anyone will want to listen. Words get repeated, fragments of sentences appear and reappear; the whole thing feels like a sea of half explained ideas, washing relentlessly against the shore.
All of this everyday anxiety, uncertainty, tension, sadness is caught mid flight - wrapped in the rigid confines of Rosie’s unerringly exact performance. All that loose, messy, human chaos replicated delicately and precisely. Despite the crystallized beauty of her carefully constructed movements and her finely crafted text, we can see through this polished exterior to the soft, tender, bruised emotions at its heart. It is our own sadness, our own yearnings, our own loves, just made ever so slightly estranged. Unreal.
This show, like Hitting a Brick Wall (the other part of this double bill) is a show that presents its heartbreaking, life-affirming honesty with a care and a thoughtfulness and a distance that is almost irresistible.
I don’t remember what exactly Rosie sang at the end of this show, her own song, her own love song dedication, I just remember that in its tender, trusting, openness (a little bit beautiful, a little bit rubbish, but totally brutally open) it felt like anything I’ve ever done for someone I truly love.
I am writing regarding the vote in the commons on the human fertilisation and embryology bill tomorrow. I'd urge you to support the opinion of the British Medical Association, The royal college of obstetrics and gynaecology, the royal college of nurses and the commons own Science and technology committee by voting against any reduction in the week limit for late-term abortions.
The Tory MP Nadine Dorries has led a horribly dishonest campaign, supported by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, that has distorted facts, made baseless appeals to emotion and outright lied in order to convince people of the need for a reduction. As numerous articles (including one in the Guardian today) and online at websites such as bloggerheads and rhetorically speaking have demonstrated, this campaign has utterly failed to come up with any decent reason for a reduction of any length and is led and funded by people who's interest in a reduction to 20 or 22 weeks is fundamentally undermined by their support of greater reductions (some who support the abolition of abortion altogether).
This minority campaign cannot be allowed to succeed, for the sake of women's right to choose and to demonstrate that this kind of malicious, dishonest lobbying will not prosper. I hope that you will be in parliament to vote against reduction in the 24 week limit.
[If you agree please do the same and email your MP. It takes no more than a couple of minutes.]
May 16, 2008
[once again, this a show from BAC's BURST festival and I work at BAC. So approach me with due caution, like an untrustworthy llama.]
I came to this show with a nervous trepidation, prepared to be sat anxiously bored, longing to love it but ultimately failing.
This is a show about aging. This is a show about growing old, about being old. This is a show made by old people. And I like being young.
I like being young and naive and hopeful and filled with nervous energy. I like being lost in daydreams of the future. I like to be child. I like to pretend. I like fall in love too often and too easily. I like to play run or jump or dance to the point of exhilarating, euphoric exhaustion. I like to imagine that I still have most of my life to lead. And behind all of this there’s probably a crushingly, suffocating fear that one day I’ll die and it’ll be all over. And the thought of being old, of knowing that you’ve had your shot at most things, that you’re body won’t move like that again, that you’re not going to be a footballer or a 400 metre runner or an Oscar winning director, that terrifies me.
And so I’ve generally tried to avoid thinking about being old. I’ve never watched Harold and Maud. I’ve imagined that one day I’ll undergo some evolution into someone who is old and happy and suddenly nothing will please me more than a good book and the remembering all the things I once did. And so I try to imagine old people are like another species, The Elderly.
All of which was the baggage I trawled behind me as I took my seat meekly in the audience for Und.
And initially things looked like they were panning out as grimly anticipated. There was a man, an old man, with a face set into a cartoon grimmace, a caricature of a person (an Elderly, in its natural habitat), walking slowly, solemnly in a square across the bare stage. But then something changed. In a moment of spectacular, staggering beauty he began to skip. His face never moved a muscle and yet everything was different. Now that same grimmace was the knowing disguise of an entirely different person, no longer a hollow vision of An Old Person, but someone.
In a moment of marvellous (and long, long overdue) epiphany I suddenly realised that in 20, 30, 40 years time I will exactly as I do now. I am still, fundamentally, the same anxious, passionate, arrogant person I was 20 years ago, sitting in Class 2 longing for the teacher to ask me a question. I will always be that person. When I am 60 I will want to skip and fall in love too easily and become a rock star and I’ll still think I’m right about everything and I’ll still be hugely daunted by anyone who seems righter than me. One day I’ll wake up and it’ll be my sixtieth birthday and I’ll wonder how the hell I got here. And it’ll be terrifying and wonderful in equal measure.
That’s what this show is full of. People like me. Proud people, fragile people, funny people, sexy people. People full of wit and joy and life, moving across a bare stage, looking us in the eye and being who they are.
Like Jerome Bel, the beauty of it comes from their everydayness. From a simplicity, a transparency, that allows us to gaze out at a group of people not unlike ourselves, doing something we could do, marvelling at the sameness of all of us. At the delicacy and grace and wit that we are all able to conjure.
On the day of the first day of the show we also had a Tea Dance here. A lot of the cast from Und went along. One of the women from the show was asked if she was going to be there and she responded with a look of horror and asked why would she want to come all the way to England to hang out with a bunch of old people. That’ll be me. For better or for worse that’s who I’ll always be.
May 15, 2008
Astronaut (Tim Atack)
This show begins in darkness. A thick velvety darkness, comforting and suffocating in equal measure; its the kind of darkness you can get lost in. That’s what space looks like from the moon. The whiteness of the dusty surface meaning the stars aren’t visible and so everything is enveloped in an unending blanket of utter blackness, punctured only by a tiny blue and white marble hanging in the emptiness like some kind of marvellous, absurd jewel.
This is the landscape of Tim Atack’s fragile, gentle little show. This hinterland of staggeringly beautiful emptiness. A place that’s only ever been occupied by a handful of lonely Americans.
With a precise simplicity Astronaut delicately summons this twilight zone precariously balanced between life and death. Without any sense of bombast or drama (aware that the stories are big enough already) Tim asks one simple question - if you were stranded out there, waiting less than half an hour to die in a place further away than anyone has ever died before, cut off from anybody else, what would you do? What would you sing? It’s a question as simple, beautiful and profound as its telling.
I suppose though, as someone pointed out to me, the one flaw with this show is one I didn’t even really think about at the time. That, as the show itself points out, there were always two men on the moon, and the question of how you would die when someone else was around is a very different one, and perhaps not the one Tim is interested in. And though that incongruity does undermine slightly the transparent simplicity of the set-up, this is nonetheless a completely beguiling little show.
Like Rotozaza’s Etiquette, one of the nicest things you can do with this show is simply watch people participating. Sit in the lobby and you can watch person after person (at regular 5 minute intervals) wheeled back into the lobby, hands tied in front of them, melting in the seat of their wheelchair. They get up woozily, smiling with swooning embarassment; trying to hold on to the memory of what’s just happened, trying not to let it all slip away.
In almost all of them, there’s definitely a reluctance for this show to end. I certainly did’t want to leave its bizarre, beautiful world and the person I went with came out and wanted to go buy a ticket to go straight back in again.
I don’t think this reaction is simply because there is something completely wonderful about being blindfolded and wheeled through a series of tantalisingly intimate, sensous encounters; being thrown against a wall, having your face stroked by a stranger, the smell of cinnamon and the sound of Chris Isaak's Wicked Game. All of this is almost relentlessly lovely but I think there’s something darker to it too. At the heart of all this touching and talking and tasting is a heartbreaking sadness that you don’t want to have to confront.
Throughout every delicate embrace and every whispered laugh and every longing gaze, you are aware you are but another anonymous figure in a relentless conveyor belt - something that is made startling apparent in the show’s cinematically majestic final image. We are consumers, desperately longing for an intimacy we can’t have - falling through space, reaching out for a hand to hold as we go. And so despite falling for the voice whispering questions to you as you lie together, legs tangled, on a bed, a niggling thorn somewhere at the back of your head tells you that there is terrible hollow sadness to this encounter.
And yet perhaps in our awareness of this fact something else is created. You know there is a falseness to this intimacy, and they know you know. And so for a few minutes you can escape from everything else and indulge in this wonderful lie. At that point it becomes something other than theatre, something other than therapy, something that’s just gloriously, deliriously other. And maybe that’s a good description of almost all the best theatre.
May 6, 2008
It started like this: the other day London had an election you might have heard about - a big one they say, the biggest yet - and I didn't vote. I read the papers and the blogs, I joined in vigorously with various people venting their incredulity that Johnson (don't mention the B word) might win, I admired the clever advertising on the tube, I grew increasingly, despairingly, hopelessly frustrated by the poisonous partisan bullshit and hyperbole churned out on an industrial scale by the Evening Standard papers and clustered bombed into Greater London... and yet when it came to it I did nothing. I didn't even register - I didn't even look into it to see how hard it would be (the answer I would imagine being 'not very, you lazy little turd').
Now I could try and justify this in a series of ways: I could talk about a feeling of despair, of a sense of futility in the fact that both sides had once essentially chosen to field the only politician they have left with what might have once been considered character, in the shameless hope that some superficial appeal to personality might conceal the negligible differences between them. I could mention my unease at the crass, unthinking response of so many people on the left to even the idea of Boris Johnson becoming Mayor (fuelled by uncontextualised quotes, exaggerated claims of wrongdoing and naked class prejudice); which is not to say that I am by any means his biggest fan (his stance on gay marriage is frankly archaic) but merely that it makes me hugely uncomfortable when people adopt any attitude based almost entirely on wilful ignorance and instinctive dislike of plummy toffs.
I wish also that I could talk about red devils and shallow blue seas. About having nothing but contempt for Cameron's more New Labour than New Labour style with a spot of shameless playing to the old right galleries. About my seething, incredulous anger at the contempt, the shambolic, two-faced, I-did-what-I-thought-was-right arrogance of a New Labour government willing at every stage to directly contradict themselves, to avoid any responsibility for their actions, to cannibalise any last vestiges of respect for their own ideals or the people who elected them in the hope of squeezing a few more votes out of middle England and a few more pounds out of a handful of people who are wealthy beyond any conceivable sense of human decency. I wish I could talk about my frustration that regardless of the depths that they are willing to sink to, the shamefacedness with which they will change their spots in front of our eyes, the number of poorly armoured British soldiers wandering around sandy parts of the world being shot at, they know that a sizeable chunk of the British population will vote for them anyway because they're not the tories - what do you think the tories are? The Nazgul? Margaret Thatcher's cabinet from the 1980s just waiting to unzip their costumes and tear the miners a new arsehole? And how could either situation be worse than the 'labour' government that we have now; a government that takes money from the working single mothers, that conjoins itself like some enfeebled twin to the most right-wing government the US has seen in the last 50 years, that tightens drug laws against legal and medical advice to 'send a message', that forces the serious fraud office to drop investigations because it might upset Saudi Arabia.
I could talk about all this and more but if I'm brutally, crushingly honest this is reasoned despair is much of a muchness. In the end I didn't vote because I was apathetic, self-involved and had seemingly more important things on my mind. Now from all of the above you'd think (hell, I'd think) I'm someone who gives a damn. I can spend 8 weeks completing an almost endless series of funding applications but I can't even rouse myself to type 'voter registration UK' into google when I sit in front of a computer for 10 hours a day.
As I consumed the results flying in all this began to gnaw away at me slightly. What is it that I'm doing exactly? Beyond an almost sociopathic level of personal ambition what is it all for? (earnest questions I know but it's now 2 in the morning and, unlike Bill Hicks, I can't guarantee there will be dick jokes ensuing to break up all the well-meaning introspection. Sorry)
Politics was a subject not discussed in our house. At university I treated anyone who wanted to go into student politics in much the same way you might treat someone if you'd just found out they watched the film Saw II 17 times. I was all for the kind of cynical posturing that comes from almost having understood everyone from Walter Benjamin to Judith Butler but at the end of the day I was all delicate sneer and no trousers. And certainly I know more now. More about a lot of things. I'm sure I can certainly talk a good outrage but always without really doing much about it.
Which is where we've got to with all the opening talk about messages and signposts.
First up I recently went to see Laurie Anderson's Homeland. I was all kinds of things during this show. I was bored. I was tired. I was transfixed. I was impressed. I was heartbroken. It is a show fizzing with so much honesty and life and scale and ambition and wit and power it can barely contain it; it's like an overfilled sack, ideas escaping all the time, leaking out into the crowded rows of the auditorium faster than you can get a hold of them. Yet there was one thing that stuck. That hit me like bowling ball square in my gut. At one point, in a heavily synthesised 'male' voice that shivered frustration and cynicism and hope and despair she said (something along the lines of):
Remember that scene in the old movie, in the saloon. Someone runs in, the doors swinging behind them; everything stop, the barman stops polishing, the poker plays pause mid hand. And he shouts 'There's trouble at the mine!' And everyone leaves. Everyone rushes out to help. Well, there's trouble at the mine! There's trouble at the mine!Now obviously my butchering of her words is doing her no favours (in fact there's probably a crack team of libel lawyers assembling in the driveway as we speak) but there was something in that cry (in its pleading, hopelessly desperation) and the wall of stillness that greeted it that skewered me. It was like watching someone run into a brick wall in the hope that eventually it might fall down. It was every shot we've seen of an Iraqi mother screaming into the face of a soldier who doesn't understand her. It was over a million people marching on London against the war. It was everyone that didn't. It was the six people who continue to sit with Brian Haw in Parliament Square. It was Kitty Genovese. It was every time I've lied to someone who's asked me for change because I don't want to just tell them I don't want to give them anything. It was, in short, an accusation that went through me like a carving knife; I felt filleted.
And then tonight, while I'm still carrying the memory of that around like an open wound, I watched Taking Liberties. Now it's not necessarily a great film. Or even a really good one. But you should all absolutely watch it. As a simple, effective summation of the liberties poached from us over the last 10 years its utterly effective. What's equally effective however are the various figures who litter the film. The young sisters arrested on a disused runway at an airport in the midlands. The women who visit people under house arrest. The jurors from the scandalously false ricin plot trial who still visit and talk with one of those people who's life was ruined by being accused of involvement. The handful of protesters in Brighton picketing a US arms manufacturer every Wednesday. Mark Thomas and his motley crew of solo protesters... it goes on.
These are the people. This is what its going to take to achieve anywhere near what we need to. Not necessarily through their means but through their attitude. Through a courageous, relentless, meaningful sense of agency. Not through writing posts about conceptual protests on one's sparsely read website.
For me, I think the realisation is that its all about joining the dots. It's about channelling everything that I have come to start truly believing in over the last few years into the work that I am creating in some meaningful sense. That doesn't mean creating pieces of verbatim drama or choreographed protests. I still believe absolutely in the forms I want theatre to take. But I think its about finding ways for those forms to convey myself more fully - morally, politically, emotionally. For them to feel like they mean something valuable, that they are doing something valuable. It's about forgoing any sense of work/life balance, because the two should be kind of the same thing.
It also means I'm going to get off my ass and start voting. And start protesting the things I think deserve protesting. And it also means doing some other things, that I shall endeavour to start doing.
In short this is somewhat of a long overdue epiphany, mainly about focus. About what I believe in and what I intend to do about that. All of which was clarified rather neatly (all too neatly really and I'm not at all proud that this has any part to play in anything I'm boldly daring to call an epiphany) by the final episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, in which the ever-brilliant Bradley Whitford says this:
I just stood in Jack's office and said, "Screw friendship, screw honor, screw patriotism." That's how I talked about myself. And then I added, "We just lost the franchise." That's how I talked about Matt, who would stand in front of a train for any of us, including you while you're screwing Luke. He's been threatened by the Network, compromised by me, brow-beaten by you, heart-broken by Wes, and he's still standing up. Why am I quitting? Cause they're gonna start shooting at him and I'm gonna be standing next to him when they do. You're a talented girl, have a good show this week.And what struck me about this was not Aaron Sorkin's unending ability to be able phone in an empassioned, barnstorming morality speech in his sleep. It was that I'd like to create theatre or at least do something that might put me in a situation where I am given the choice to stand up for something I believe in. That what I do might be meaningful enough (and courageous enough) that I might be given the opportunity to prove honorable. Today I found myself almost threatening to quit over which desk I had in the office and there is absolutely zero honorable about that.
I want to be doing something that I feel really means something. To create work that, like Homeland, genuinely tries to say everything that I think. That isn't just nice or clever or a good idea. Because I don't want theatre to be an occupation; I want my theatre to be a politics, a way of living, a version of myself existing out in the world that deserves standing up for. But more than this, I want to actually live in a way that is a part of the same thing; that is an extension of the morals or the politics that I espouse and the theatre that I make. And as worthy as all that may sound, I really mean it. And hopefully from now on I can begin to do something about it.