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.