Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Standing on the top hats of giants on stilts

So last week I invented prosthetic synapses. OK, not so much invented as, you know, had an idea. About how you could maybe make artificial synapses out of, whatever, Quorn, and make new connections between neurons, between neurons in different people even. Play the brain like a Moog or a switchboard or something. (I heard an interesting discussion once of how the operation of the brain is always described in terms of whatever the most complex and sublime piece of communications engineering is in the culture at the time: so now, of course, the brain is "like a computer" whereas fifty years ago the brain functioned "much like a switchboard". I only mention this because my brain frequently feels as though it functions like a switchboard, in some retro industrial black-and-white landscape somewhere between Night Mail and Eraserhead. Presumably before that the brain was a sort of spinning jenny, or very like a sandwich in fact, or a soft grey involuted harpsichord about the size of a vicar's fist, and so on back as far as the astrolabe.)

I must admit I didn't invent the prosthetic synapse on my own, I was having dinner with an old friend, someone who used to be my boss in fact, back in the day when I had a proper job. (Don't stop breathing, it was about the most improper proper job you could ever imagine without actually being in PR.) The way she tells it I think I only got the job because when at interview she asked me what my weaknesses were, my mind went atrociously blank and I ended up haltingly confessing to never having been much good at hockey. We went on to spend an immensely cordial and overexcited couple of years developing an unconscionably complex and hermetic schtick, quite a bit of it in Latin and much of it centering on an imagined series of children's books featuring the erratic 80's Warwickshire fast bowler Gladstone Small, e.g. What's The Time, Gladstone Small?; A Sticky Bun for Gladstone Small; Put It Away Now Gladstone Small, &c. My ex-boss and I only see each other probably once a year now, but seem instantly to fall back into this private language on the dot of our reunion. (You have to imagine those gothic tales of identical twins who grow up neglected in an attic and speak to each other in an invented code of clicks and twitterings. Funny, you know, narrating all this, suddenly the opprobrium and resentment we drew from our colleagues all falls utterly butterly into place.)

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because I am a smug geek like the Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons and I feel this slightly revolting need to use my blog for self-mythologizing. But also, more importantly, because this happened. Before we went for dinner and invented Quorn synapses, I met my friend at her current workplace -- I feel coy about saying where, so I shan't, but it's an extraordinarily impressive building, and pretty much everyone who works there (that's an informed estimate) is seriously smart. You can practically hear the buzz given off by the hive mind: or maybe that's the air conditioning but in a workplace where everyone wears spectacles, sometimes more than one pair at a time, I'm prepared to believe it's the brains. These brains are not like switchboards. They don't conjure images of steam issuing from manholes or encapsulated messages disappearing up vacuum tubes. They really don't.

And so I was sitting there waiting for my friend and thinking how great it must be to work in a place where everyone's so smart and switched-on and I was a little bit envious, it was basically my usual 'I want to go to work in The West Wing' fantasy except considerably less plausible. And then it came to me -- and it's stayed with me --

Right now it is 1.0am and in nine hours I will be arriving at the first day of rehearsals for Speed Death of the Radiant Child and I couldn't be more excited, partly because this has been a long time coming, and partly because I'm excited about the ideas I've been forming, but mostly because the room's going to be full of incredibly smart and switched-on people. There'll be eleven of us round the table this week, starting the conversation that's supposed to lead (in five days) to my being able to write the script of the show (in eight days flat) that we then put on three weeks later in Plymouth. And it's all pretty daunting but it's the kind of daunting where you're just saying to yourself: OK. Let's do it. Let's see if we can match these nearly-impossible expectations. Let's see if we can exceed them.

And that thought is staying really fresh and compelling, not least because I've been lucky enough to spend all week around brilliant people and seeing and reading brilliant things, and I've never felt so much like an annoying homunculus standing not on the shoulders of giants but on their hats. The uppermost reaches of their big top hats. And the giants are on stilts. And the stilts are on casters.

It's absurd to even try this when I ought to be in bed but I want to have a crack at a roll of honour for the week. Please forgive my brevity and all the infelicities that go with it.

Nigel Charnock at the Drill Hall, a new piece called Single which is pretty much a down-the-line cabaret singing show. Who else would have the chutzpah to start with an unaccompanied 'The Water is Wide' from amid the audience? ...OK, Mandy Patinkin. Never mind. Point is, it wasn't at all what I was expecting, but I suppose if you don't (...better get ready to eat my cliche...) expect the unexpected from an offbeam genius like Charnock, you're pretty much just a dunce. It was pretty restrained even, apart from an odd moment where a scat solo spiralled off into farmyard impressions; I imagine he was pretty nervous and maybe he settled into it as the week went on. There's loads more he could do with this stuff, but he knows that, and either he's going to do it eventually, or he's already decided that isn't what he wants to do. What's not in doubt for a second is the extraordinary openness he has as a performer -- oh, sorry, all those words, vulnerability, generosity, and whenever I hear them I want to say "What? Vulnerable to what exactly? Generous how?" And then I go see someone like Nigel Charnock and all the parsing-posturing of my critical so-called life comes to look as self-serving and dishonourable as, for that moment, it is.

Clare Duffy (of Unlimited) was in town for LLGFF and we went to see a neat documentary about Tony Kushner called Wrestling With Angels. It was a judicious piece of filmmaking, though given the level of access the director had I'm surprised it didn't yield more surprises; but the real value of the movie is that Kushner really does come across as a most likeable, modest, sensationally articulate, genuinely public-spirited man, a real lionheart. As a result, I've been accompanying some of this last weekend's dreary admin tasks with rewatching the HBO Angels in America. It's far from perfect but there are great things in it, especially Jeffrey Wright who I'm prepared to believe is one of the two or three greatest screen actors of his generation. There is something about the mobility of film that renders Kushner's theatrical expansiveness slightly ludicrous -- but it could be that it was pretty ludicrous in the theatre too. I guess we'll get to see when the new Headlong production hits the stage in a couple of weeks.

Raimund Hoghe's Sacre, at the Barbican as part of Robert Pacitti's helpful (if idiosyncratic) SPILL Festival, was small, spare and ultimately stunning. Although I knew about Hoghe's long association with Pina Bausch, and had seen (but forgotten) a bit of documentary stuff about him, I've never seen his own work before and really didn't know what to expect. Now, having seen it, when I think about it I still don't know what to expect I'll think or feel. I've hardly ever known such a truly discomfiting piece of work: the genius of this two-man take on the Rite of Spring is that it purposefully restores to Stravinsky's score the physical jolts of alarm and trepidation that greeted its premiere in 1913. Sacre methodically, almost ruthlessly, forces questions about magic(k) and private ritual, and their connections with sex, with ageing and intergenerational relationships, with beauty and the ideals of physicality. It is severely beautiful, and I have to say I found it genuinely frightening at moments, sometimes almost preposterous: Hoghe's self-perception is devastatingly acute, and his performing partner Lorenzo De Brabandere exhibits an absolutely lovely mix of authority and ingenuousness. In forty-five minutes it made everything feel different, and then left you stranded in that weirdness, having to find (or to not find) your own way home. Quite extraordinary.

Ah, there's loads more I want to write about a dozen other things, but I must be sensible and consider the start of this project. I'm going to need all my wits about me and that doesn't happen by accident. That's sleep and vegetables and a certain amount of carefulness. Whooo!

Hopefully I'll be able to drop back in here again before the week's out and top this entry up with the rest of the stilted giants. For now, this is the Controlling Thompson disconnecting his mycoprotein lead and wishing you happy landings.

1 comment:

Andrew Field said...

I just finished reading Haruki Murakami's Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World in which he invents the quite delightful idea our core consciousness could be graphically reproduced and (with a bit of creative editing) be made into a story that could watched like a film.

Possibly your story would indeed be 'Put It Away Now Gladstone Small'... one can but dream.

Good luck with rehearsals.