At the risk of coming on like a fourth-rate observational comedian (rather than the sixth-rate pasha of male pattern obliviousness that I so plainly am), can I first of all make a fuss about this: that I bought some socks the other day, a pack of four pairs, and they're good socks, don't get me wrong, I'm not agitated about the socks, but there was a sticker on one of them that said: "The most comfortable sock in the world!" [sic -- or, oh go on then, soc]. Singular. Now, on the one hand (or, oh go on then, foot), I'm sure I should be pleased to have happened across the most comfortable sock in the world. As golden tickets go it's not exactly one to write home about (after all, what's a blog for?), but neither is it to be sneezed at (or into). But how curious, how exquisitely cruel and unusual, to nominate a single sock as the most comfortable in the world. I appreciate that it may not be possible for them to make all socks to the same standard of comfort: apart from anything else, outlay on stickers would presumably increase unsustainably, and their message would have to be downgraded to: "Among the equally most comfortable socks in the world", something clunky like that. Whatever, there's no way of retaining the zing of the superlative, at least not without some kind of, I don't know, distortive advertising mendacity, which obviously isn't an option. So I appreciate the predicament they're in and I will happily reiterate my gratefulness. But surely they in turn must understand that any pleasure I might have derived from the knowledge that I was wearing such a paragon of hosiery is dismally occluded by the unsettling apprehension of the shortfall, as it were, of my other sock. I am walking around -- o the humanity -- wearing a pair of socks one of which is CERTIFIABLY less comfortable than the other. Is this, by Jove, is this even truly a pair of socks? Where, in this context, can the quality of 'pairness' be said to reside? Am I perhaps, ah! poor deluded fool!, am I perhaps wearing odd socks which just happen to appear, superficially, I mean to the casual observer (of which my ankles may have many from day to day, who knows?) to be a pair? This surely strikes at the very foundations of something-or-other. My head is literally revolving with the implications. Truly, best beloved, I am wearing Pandora's socks, thank you, I'm here all week, try the Quorn.
I've spent the past few days in hot and sulphurous Portishead -- the place, yes, not the chic trip-hop torch band of yesterdecade, whose songs memorably underscored every single incidence of sexual congress throughout two whole series of This Life. No no, but Portishead, little coastal mini-town near Bristol, Port-Z to the locals. My dad's there, and some seagulls, and a newish Waitrose supermarket with, to my mind, a curious Tarkovskian ambience. I was just hanging out for a few days, watching the Open golf and reading a bit, all very chilled, I mean very hot indeed mostly but very laid back.
The most difficult thing I did all week was try to respond with as little fatuity as possible to an invitation from the Live Art Development Agency, who are compiling a publication on behalf of Arts Council England with the aim of encouraging dialogue between 'mainstream' theatre venues and artists working in 'experimental' modes. I am requested to contribute something "reflecting your thoughts on the importance and cultural value of contemporary experimental theatre and the necessity of investing in our cultural future". My response should be "between 5 and 50 words". ...Nice to be asked but I can hardly think of a more consummate example of the way in which public dialogue around live arts practice is currently prosecuted. "Here's one of the most complex questions it's possible to ask about the operations of artistic culture, posed in terms that are themselves unreliable; could you send us your response on a bumper sticker by return?" I dare say they're inviting some more extended contributions too and these 5-word quotes are the equivalent of the parsley sprig labelled 'serving suggestion' on the picture; and I have no beef whatever with the Live Art Development Agency, I think Lois Keidan and Daniel Brine have done incredibly valuable work there. But if ACE really does use 'mainstream' and 'experimental' as terms to help them think about the relations between artists, producers, audiences and the public sector, then everything they do will be expressive of a model that no longer relates helpfully or meaningfully to (at any rate) innovative theatre practice. And if this new project is the beginning of an investigation into the inadequacy of that model, or even just an acknowledgement of an anxiety about those terms, then that's great, but if they were to really get into it, the implications would be overwhelming, disabling even, for their own operations.
It did mean, nonetheless, that I spent most of the rest of the week thinking about 'mainstream' and 'experimental' practice and wondering what was what...
The evening before I left for Portishead I went with Gemma to see the West End transfer of Sunday in the Park With George. Disappointing that the promise, as advertised outside the theatre, of "AN ELECTRIC DANIEL EVANS" was not fulfilled, but other than that it was a fabulous experience. Daniel Evans (unplugged) was sensational: I've seen him a few times on stage now and I've never seen him do anything he didn't look born to play -- which is quite something, considering the distance between Sondheim and, say, Sarah Kane. In fact most of the cast were great -- though my pleasure would have been double had I known as I watched it that Seurat's mother, who has that most beautiful song in the first act, was being played by Gay Soper, near-legendary voice of The Flumps.
But is Sondheim mainstream or experimental? Perhaps he's a rare example of an artist who has become more experimental over time. Or is he always the same half-dozen steps ahead of us, leaving us always slowly catching up? Can musical theatre on a West End scale (if not actually in the West End) ever be considered 'experimental' in the sense that the Arts Council wants to mean it? ...Can we also in passing acknowledge that Jerry Springer: The Opera, which is now taken to be a contemporary benchmark in 'cutting edge' musical theatre, was actually incredibly conservative in almost every respect? Great popular entertainment, certainly, and very admirably thorough in taking out point-blank every last fish in the barrel. But if we're talking about artistic risk-taking (I always have a problem with the notion of 'riskiness' in theatre because so little is ever at risk apart from money and reputation, both of which are lousy indicators of artistic achievement, but let's go with it for now...), Sondheim has always been way ahead of anything else in the game. As evidence of which, not least, look at the cool and quizzical reception of Sunday in the Park... when it was first shown, and look at its rehabilitation now.
Same thing with Spielberg. I watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind over the weekend, for the first time since I was a kid. What an awesome film! Brilliantly executed and, again, remarkably risky. Is Spielberg an experimental film-maker? I don't know how Duel was received at the time it came out but that's near-enough 'arthouse' (an appellation we sadly don't have in theatre -- maybe it's time to start borrowing it) and Close Encounters, while superficially far more complex and abundant, is plainly as much an 'experimental' as a 'mainstream' film. Partly you could see it as an experimental prototype for what became E.T. The Extra Terrestrial -- which is emphatically not an experimental film, and very definitely orienting itself to the dead-centre current of the mainstream (though no less beautiful or admirable for that). I suppose I can relate to that in a sense: there are pieces that I make definitely for me, because I want to find some stuff out; and there are pieces in which I take what I've found and offer it to an audience. To a point, the distinction is pretty clear in my mind. But innovation within the mainstream is very often more experimental, more risky, than soi disant 'experimental' work that actually is mimicking the aesthetics and systems of past experiments without pressurizing the assumptions that underwrite them.
Waaaay back in the day, when I was still a playwright, a director I worked with, who had aspirations towards film, told me (you'll have to forgive this, we were both younger so much younger than today) that he thought of himself as Spielberg and me as Scorsese. Which was intended, and taken, as a compliment: he meant that he was bang-central mainstream in outlook and I was edgier and more likely to be credible among snobs. There was probably something in that, at some level. But I'd trade everything in Scorsese's entire oeuvre for any fifteen minutes of Close Encounters.
What also struck me, actually, watching the film, was how reminiscent it was of Robert Lepage's theatre work, particularly something like The Dragon's Trilogy. The overlaying of cultures and languages, such that the information value of particular communications is surpassed by the tonal significations of the will, the desire, to communicate; the telling of large complex stories through simple symbolic blocks and rhythmic patterns; the use of light, particularly points of light, to create intimacies across (often unchartable or imaginary) distances; the way your attention is constantly directed towards people who are themselves in the act of paying attention to other people or other things. I wonder whether Spielberg was a conscious influence on Lepage. Anybody know?
In fact there is a sense in which Close Encounters is a notably theatrical movie, in so far as I take theatre to arise in part out of a situation in which actors and spectators (necessarily a more stable distinction in the area of film!) are all manifestly and actionably in the same 'room', so to speak: which is, self-evidently, usually impossible with movies, and generally suppressed in stage drama. In Close Encounters, however, we all sit in the dark and look upwards with awe at a bunch of people standing around in the dark looking upwards with awe, both sets of spectators trying to come into some kind of affirmative relation with a display of coloured lights which they can only partly comprehend. I don't think I'm sufficiently match fit at the moment to elaborate on all this but I might chew on it and come back for more some other time.
Nonetheless, to take us back to the seat of today's homily: the best 'mainstream' work is always fully, vividly, even unrelentingly experimental, whether you're talking about Timbaland or John Lasseter or Michael Barrymore or whatever. A couple of days ago I heard for the first time the version of 'Walk on the Wild Side' on Rolf Harris's album King Rolf. It would be absurd to say that it's better than the original, not least because it borrows 95% of the original arrangement: but what Rolf does, in revoicing (and somewhat bowdlerising) the lyric and overlaying his own persona on it, is, I'd say, as shrewd and amibguous a piece of self-conscious performative manipulation as anything that Lou Reed ever did; yet it's never (quotes) ironic, nor disingenuous. Listening to it is wonderfully pleasurable and one is left with nothing but admiration for the out-and-out expertise of its execution, an admiration which is partly an index of the 'riskiness' of the enterprise.
Right, so that's me making the case for Rolf Harris as an experimental artist. Probably time to stop. Work on my new show, Longwave, begins in earnest tomorrow. I am very very scared of it, I think it's going to be steep work. But I have geniuses to play with. All I have to do is get out of their way.
Oh, and for what it's worth: the great Utah Phillips he say:
"To hell with the mainstream. It's polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows. Better to be lost in the tributaries known to a few than mired in the mainstream, consumed with self-love and the absurdity of greed."
...Which is also undeniably and saliently true. It's more complicated than that, of course: right up to the point that it's not.