Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"My God, what have I done?"

I forgot I was going to drop this into the last post.

I know it's cheap, grabbing stuff from YouTube for a few lousy bonus points; but on the other hand, this is, by some considerable distance, the single best thing that's ever happened, and it would be sad if by some oversight you didn't get to see it.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Gravity lessons

Hello my darlings, as Nick Drake's brother Charlie used to say, and apologies for the grossly protracted intermission. My reintroduction into polite society took a little longer than expected, and, it would be fair to say, hasn't perhaps been the most lubricious of re-entries; but, ah, in the words of Irving Berlin, 'let those who will take care of its rights and wrongs'. Can I get a witness? Possibly? If it's not too much trouble...? Whatever. And so here you find yourself, once again, in the warm Tongan death grip of the Controlling Thompson, the "large and lumbering" (The Scotsman) pre-operative David Gest of neo-Marcusian thought. Welcome, welcome, one and (according to these stats) both.

Yeah, thanks for asking, Wales ruined my mind. In the best, most exhilarating way. A real stretch, actually: real silence, real questions, real food, real time, real loneliness, real companionship. Real bunny rabbits. All of which is a little surprising, I suppose, because I guess I thought we'd go away and the space which engulfed us for those few days would be somehow virtual, in the way that the Forest of Arden is virtual. That what would be engaged might be a kind of fancifully speculative pleasure in being disconnected from the holding patterns of an artsy life in London. But it wasn't like that, right from the start, from the minute I looked up from my newspaper and saw the sun setting during the train ride along the estuary between Llanelli and Carmarthen and felt sort of disgusting for having been reading the paper in the first place. From then on it was all about reality, unobscured and candid and intransigent and wilful. An extraordinary sense of real and palpable and usable connexion. We were there for ten days and it took about eight to get attuned: not mentally, so much, because there was this instantly attractive quality to almost everything we were living with; but bodily, in finding a way out of all these locked-in behaviours that go unnoticed in the city because they are the city. So difficult to stop rushing. It feels selfish, almost obnoxious, to really take time. In a way, there ends up being a sort of trade-off with a kind of sinister admonitory narrative: take time over the washing up because there's nothing to do afterwards...

The pleasure in this is of course because the phrase "nothing to do" is such a lousy fib, 'nothing' is wrong and 'do' is idiotic. Having said that, the complete immersion in place and time as information streams in themselves, with no intrusion, no intervention of the virtual, no phone signal, no email access, no dropping out, no cheap transcendence, can have demanding consequences. You can think something at ten in the morning and nothing may have happened by ten in the evening to make you stop thinking it. So if you have a tendency anyway towards the downward spiral there can be some very starkly gloomy periods. I spent a solid two days thinking there was nothing else for it but to give up directing: which, given how pretty much all of my eggs are in that basket, is not far short of a suicide fantasy. I was worrying away at fundamentals, at the basic questions of power and consent, of what it means to say what you want, particularly to someone who might have complicated reasons for giving it to you, or for not giving it. These questions are scary not least because they are clearly not just questions about being a director. (They never are.) I remembered something perceptive Chrissy Iley wrote about Michael Barrymore, about him being ashamed not of his homosexuality but of experiencing desire at all. Which really is at the heart of everything, for me: in every creative process as an artist you are dealing (somewhat) with your own desires. Confront that fact too late, or too blithely, and you can really hurt people, you can really be a dick; feel the pressure of it too early, or with too great a weight of solemnity, and it becomes impossible to move at all. J & I sat up one night watching a DVD of The Consolations, my first ensemble show in London back in 1999, and he in particular -- being surprised by it, I suppose -- was quite moved, we both were, by the recklessness of the show and of the desires that animate it. I sort of feel that that's just not possible now, that a superficially similar recklessness now would be calculating. But I think maybe it was back then, too, and I just had a bolder sense of what I could get away with. And I was high a lot of the time. And less self-protecting.

Anyway, I'm making this sound like it was a negative experience, but it really wasn't. It was hard, in all sorts of ways. Particularly hard I suppose, and/or grievously disappointing, to end up doing almost nothing in the way of actual work -- which was always the reason for going, and especially with what I would have to say is the most beautiful working space I've ever been in, right on the doorstep: so it was strange not to be able to make stuff happen, to be able to have conversations at the level of the body, of the attending gaze, of presence and intuition, to match the spirit of the spoken conversations we were having in front of the intermittently roaring fire of an evening. I feel I really need a constant thread of that kind of work in my life, but it's difficult to sustain, particularly one-on-one: which I crave, I find it more valuable than anything, but it gives an actor nothing more than the support of being very avidly and intimately watched: which I guess is not really sufficient, though I wish to hell and back that it were.

Hard also, but exciting, to achieve a sort of depth of feeling -- and it's the depth in a way that matters more than the feelings themselves, not least because at that kind of level it's all the same feeling, love, fear, anguish, excitement -- that I thought I could no longer access. I mean I thought maybe this is what happens when you're in your mid 30s, you really can't any longer stay awake all night on the edge of a precipice, sooner or later you just (tee hee) drop off. But it turns out I've still got game. I suppose what does happen in your mid 30s is you find yourself inhabiting a lifestyle whose RoadRunner ravines have been flattened out and pleasantly carpeted and you (the coyote in the picture, though perhaps more abutting Joseph Beuys than Chuck Jones) never find yourself stranded in mid-air [do click!] because you're never running so fast that you run out of road.

But beautiful. To sit with an idea, a feeling, and for nothing to keep it from growing; for the only constraint on it to be your own will to contain it. It can't happen here. Can it? Perhaps it could if I cleared the space. But you'd make a proper King Cnut of yourself by trying.

I have a postcard on my desk, and some local honey in the larder: vain attempts to keep it real a little longer. I quite quickly got out of the (immensely agreeable) holiday habits of eating fruit for breakfast and drinking peppermint tea instead of the toxic goo I favour back at HQ. I thought I might make myself walk more -- it was a gorgeous forty minute yomp each way to get provisions; nearer two hours if, like J, you can't pass a bunch of sheep without loitering with intent for a while, in the forlorn hope that one of them will eventually take you to their leader -- but the damp of London is more bothersome than the damp of Carmarthenshire, and the hole in my left shoe that bothered me not a bit when I was making marvellously retro squelch and splosh noises all down the muddy path by the old railway line now seems distasteful when I step in a puddle in Blackfriars and spend the rest of the afternoon imagining incipient trenchfoot (sort of like the box that Paul Atreides has to put his hand inside in Dune). It took less time to sink back in to the lazy and disagreeable habits of London than to cast them off in Wales. That's sad. And despite all the stretchiness of the retreat, all the times I was so miserable I didn't know what to do with myself, there were also enough times when I felt a kind of joy that seems inexpressible, almost taboo, here -- a key perhaps being that there was mostly no one to shrink the joy into expression for -- and such an incredibly pressing and reliable commitment to the various promises of theatre as I want to know it, I came back more excited, more switched-on, than I've felt in ages, and more ready to work, and more open to the world.

Perhaps the real problem in sustaining those feelings is in wanting to share them, especially with all the people who have me down (wrongly, I hope) as cynical and peevish. The language of excitement, of enthrallingly positive sensations, is so weak, so impoverished, compared with the language of despondency and ghastliness. Within two or three days I never again wanted to hear myself tell anyone how "open" I was feeling; there was no other word for it, but it was a word that belonged to new-age quacks and Oprah. (I love Oprah: but I don't want to sound like her. Never no way no how not anything not like 73.) Maybe that's a task for next year. Mint a new language for the good stuff to travel inside.

Happy to say I haven't quite lost all of that immediate post-retreat enthusiasm. Lately I've been working with a really nice group of MA students at Rose Bruford, good fun and all pretty bright, some of them carrying some surprisingly reactionary baggage but apparently ready to drop it without too much qualmery. Exhausting but quietly inspiring.

And I've seen some good stuff. Perspectives at Chisenhale was a really good thing; Matt Davis talked very interestingly about his Field project, and Tim Jeeves presented a performance of such expansive and painstaking beauty it was hard not to come over all unnecessary. Left there to go to the Schaubuhne Blasted at the Barbican: ...I dunno, it doesn't feel like a main house play, even Kane's unstinting bravery couldn't propel her language into that kind of orbit at that early stage, but the design at least was ravishingly full and the obscene impact of the piece was not diminished sensationally for all that it was topically underpowered. (I suppose what I'm saying is, at the time of Blasted, she's still a playwright; it wasn't until Cleansed that she started actually writing for theatre.)

And then this last few days has been very, very happily spent at Tate Modern with the Charles Atlas season I was looking forward to in my last post. There was an interesting range of work, from an already remarkably inventive early video from 1975 with Merce Cunningham (in which video technology looks unbelievably young and Merce already looks incredibly old -- and I guess he was, what, mid 50s? -- though it's not so much a worn agedness as a timelessness, as if he was always that old, just painted that way in some drunken Exquisite Corpse collaboration between Frederic Leighton and Otto Dix, both of them perhaps experiencing an ineffable absinthe premonition of James Harries and the blueprint for Lauren), right up to a recent video for Antony and the Johnsons. Lots of good stuff, including a nice South Bank Show documentary on the New York experimental music scene in the late 80s, featuring some really excruciatingly great snippets of Zorn in full Spy Vs Spy flight and an extended portrait of Sonic Youth -- my, what a goofball Thurston was... But the highlights of the season for me were the two Michael Clark pieces, Hail the New Puritan and Because We Must. I won't get into it now, I could be up all night trying to describe how brilliant these videos are. I'd like to write about them properly, another time: not least, it would be helpful for me, I think, to try to write myself towards an understanding of them in theatrical terms, and particularly with regard to the ideas around post-liminal performance that I'm thinking hard about at present. But for now: Wow.

And Charlie was there himself for almost all the screenings, an unexpectedly slight and unassuming figure, looking both younger and older than I expected. (I promise that's not as stoopid as it sounds.) He had the most amazing shoes, too, white slip-ons with what looked like red flames licking up from the sole all around. There was a Q&A after each screening and after the first one there was one of those mortifying silences where everyone's just too knocked out and grateful to speak, let alone formulate a question, and all I could think of to ask him -- so I didn't, I promise I didn't -- was "How old are you?" and "Where did you get your shoes?" It was very nice to like him and to feel that he was approachable (that's always odd when people are talking blithely away about Merce and Thurston and they're in the same room as you; like the giddy moment a few months ago having a relaxed beer with John Temple and realising that the Charles he was talking about was Olson...), and that helped me not be quite so bothered by SUPERHONEY, one of the videos on the Sunday afternoon programme, and -- notwithstanding the presence in it of some very endearingly and appropriately aghast-looking robots -- one of the most horrible and stupid short films I think I've ever seen. Sometimes I'm really amazed at what beautiful and talented people think is a good use of their time, not just once on a reckless whim, but day after day after day for as long as it takes to raise the money and gather the people and the stuff that you need, and then the shooting and the editing and the post-production, just in order to make a film as sullen and witless as that.

All of that aside, what a fantastic season, and what an extraordinary body of work. And of course it's these opportunities that keep one wedded -- albeit mired in spousal abuse and half-crazed with longing for extra-marital affairs -- to London. And Lord alone knows, account-holders, if I lived all my life without web access, Thompson's would very quickly be rationalised zerowards by Head Office, and you'd have to get all your strenuous-yet-ineffectual cultural analysis from the Tesco Metro that would open in its place.

Anyway. That's the new collective noun for sheep, ok? Bunch. Not flock, bunch.