I caught this morning morning's bunion: the grim sight of myself in the mirror newly out-of-bed and with my recently shortened hair sort of sticking up in the middle like an impromptu Hoxton fin. Instantly I was thrust into the terrifying middle of a fantasy about fronting a grotesque tribute band called Fat Travis. Right? Just like Travis, but fat. BANK!
That's BANK! as in The Weakest Link, not as in Bank Holiday, which it is of course today but so gloomy and damp and miserable that it's hard not to assume that we've all nationally wandered blindly into the middle of a Jasper Carrott routine (I'm guessing here) about how the weather's always bad on Bank Holidays zzzzzzzzz. So I'm not taking it too seriously. But hell's (in reverse alphabetical order) teeth pants and bodikins, what gloom!; yesterday, back in London at last, was like the deepest vilest barely-imaginable underbelly of a Victorian February. It took every remaining moral fibre of my being, i.e. both of them, to resist succumbing instantly to consumption. Instead I flagellated myself Gladstonically with limbs ripped off a self-felled oak and copped a furtive look at a daguerrotype of a lady's bare ankle, all of which was thoroughly restoring. Except, except, what on earth am I talking about?
Thank you to everyone who's so kindly enquired after the health of Speed Death. I'm happy to say that the condemned men and women have been eating hearty breakfasts, day in day out.
The process leading up to the opening was actually kind of eerie. I have never before, never, worked on a project where the tech finished ahead of time and where two dress rehearsals were not just scheduled but actually achieved. No tempers frayed, nothing went particularly wrong even; I've experienced greater stress walking on a beach at sunset. (Anyone who's ever tried to spend any quality time with me on a beach will attest to the truth of that statement.) I had no sleepless nights, and, as far as I can recall, only one pre-first-night anxiety dream, in which Speed Death turned out to closely resemble Fiddler on the Roof. Which one would have to say it really didn't. (Unless one were the chap in Pericles who describes how "The very principals did seem to rend, / And all too Topol.")
And so, facing little to no opposition from the relevant gods and goddesses, we have a show, and I suppose at this moment, with only five performances remaining, it's nearer to been and gone than here and now. After a first night that was, almost needless to say, nervy, a bit skittery in places -- though, from my seat in the front row (not my choice, but I arrived at the theatre only a couple of minutes before the doors closed to find, completely unexpectedly, a more-or-less sellout crowd, students mostly, writing energetically on big A4 notepads, and many of them appearing not once, at any moment, to look at the stage), nonetheless overwhelming -- things have mostly gone really well.
The only bad time we've had so far -- though boy was it a bad time -- was on the first Saturday night. A substantial audience again, lots of friends in, all the actors really looking forward to a best-yet performance... Everything starts fine, but then the first big music cue, a big lavish bit of Handel, never arrives. For a few seconds I assume it's just a teething problem, someone new is calling the show, I'm trying to remember if somebody said someone new is also operating the sound... And then I realise I can just about, very faintly, hear the Handel. So the cue has gone all right, it's just the level is utterly wrong. And then the mic seems not to be live either. And it's only then that I -- slowest of slowcoaches as ever -- realise that the whole first scene is voiceover, and if we're not getting the music, we're not going to get that either...
Finally, finally, after a full five minutes of something plainly being awfully wrong, the show is stopped, the audience is apologised to. Somebody somewhere switches on the amp that never got turned on during the pre-show soundcheck that presumably never happened. After a relatively brief hiatus, generously received by the audience, the play restarts, though not from the beginning. So the Saturday house will never understand that opening sequence; they are, in effect, from this point on, seeing a different play in a quite different context.
With so many people running the show technically, it's both bewildering and totally understandable that such a rudimentary mistake should be made. Everyone of course looked green afterwards, was full of apologies and assurances, and it's very hard to be cross with anyone in particular, though of course I felt absolutely furious and in all sorts of ways rather pained. I've done more than enough stuff to know that these apparently inexplicable things happen, and at one level you have to accept that that's just how theatre goes sometimes.
I do think, however, that there's something very wrong at a cultural level -- not specifically in respect of TRP, where almost without exception everyone has been hugely capable and positive and supportive and certainly everyone wants to do their best for the piece: but in terms of the assumptions about theatre that seem underwrite the construction and management of most theatre environments from Drum-scale upwards.
Let me say first of all that there is definitely something lulling about it, something that very impressively assuages the impulse to vigilance. I've never been in a production meeting with fourteen other people before; heck, Lavinia, I've barely been in a production meeting before. This machine. Stuff is done before you've even finished saying it. Have I ever made a piece before where I didn't buy most of the props myself? Photocopy the scripts myself? It's fantastic, it's like being in a luxury hotel, it's like putting on a play at the Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur: complimentary dressing gown, chocolate on your pillow... These people know what they're doing and so when they say, well, how we do it is this way, you say, cool, let's do that then.
But like most machines, this machine has no intelligence within itself. This is not to say that the people who comprise the machine are unintelligent, just that they surrender their intelligence to the needs of the machine. There is something incredibly estranged about their experience. That radio that Gemma turns on in scene 7: that's the DSM, who can just about see and hear the performance, slightly anticipating the motion of Gemma's thumb and saying "Sound cue 18 [or whatever] -- Go!" to the sound operator, who is one floor up and listening to the DSM's voice on headphones, and cannot see and can barely hear the performance, and whose job it is then to press the button that launches the sound effect of the radio which then plays from a speaker in roughly the right area of the stage, at a pre-ordained volume level and for a pre-determined duration. This is what "she turns on the radio" now means. However many people running the show, only one of whom has a script in front of them or who has even -- in any meaningful sense -- seen the play, and none of whom are in the same room as the performance, or the audience, not least because they need to be able to talk to each other on headphones, which they need to be able to do because they're not in the same room as the performance, which is because... oh, hang on, I'm in a terminal loop. I may need to be put down.
We have an immensely capable, bright, engaging DSM, who has been absolutely on top of everything throughout. But she's never said -- it's not in her job description to say -- Chris, how do you want this bit to feel? What should the audience experience of this be? So, like an early computer programmer punching holes in cards, it's my job to translate those touchy-feely things into: just wait an extra two seconds before you launch that cue; take the next cue from when that actor turns his head... Which means the actor always has to turn his head at that point in the piece; that two seconds one night is going to have to feel as long as two seconds the next night.
Nobody is in the same room as the performance. Physically; psychologically. Nobody is there. Everyone is paying attention, doing their best, ready to hit button A or throw switch B. Nobody is in the room. But the room is where the theatre event is taking place. The room is fraught with contingency. One night, a full-house audience is laughing throughout, at funny lines, at not-so-funny lines, and the pace of the dialogue has to twist to accommodate this, and the tone. The shifting tonality is not expressible over the headphones, even if it's been able to penetrate the glass walls separating the operators from the stage. The next night, a smaller and slightly restless audience is having trouble staying with the super-fast dynamic of one particular scene, and the actors sense it, and want to give some breathing space to what they're doing, and the scene ends quite differently than it did in rehearsal. But the fade down on the lights is the same speed that it always is -- it has to be. (And that, of course, is one I'm used to, at least. I know I've been pottering around the fringes for a long time but even I've got used to the gentle tyrannies of the automatic lighting board...)
I can't stress how much I'm not criticising any of the people involved, but they are all serving the needs of a machine that has absolutely nothing to do with theatre: at least, as I understand it and relate to it. The assumption this whole system is built on is that the ideal is for each performance to resemble the last as exactly as possible; that a brilliant performance is a clean and efficient one that as closely as possible matches some agreed template we determined between us during (or even in advance of) the tech. Whether they've had a good day at work depends on how well they've managed to avoid having to make any decisions, because if they've made a decision, it means something's gone wrong, there's been some deviation from the agreed standard.
Which is why, when something really does go seriously wrong, like the complete absence of amplified sound for the first five minutes of the show, it's so hard for anyone to take the decision to stop. Because no one has a reliable sense of how much this matters. There's no sound, ok, but maybe the last time someone forgot to turn on an amp (if it's ever happened before), it was at the top of a show where the music wasn't particularly integral to the experience, where it was decorative, just a conventional device for covering a transition or whatever, and it might have been a pity but nobody would have felt they'd missed something by missing, whatever, twenty seconds of tinkly piano. So when they're asking themselves, Does this matter?, or How much does this matter? Does this matter enough?, they need, in order to be able to answer those questions, they need to understand the artistic vision of the work, they need to consider themselves part of the creative team. Not only do they not, not only are they encouraged not to, but they're not even in the room. And this is what leads not just to that moment itself being botched, but what was for me a far more serious and disappointing error: that after the problem had been fixed, the performance was not re-started from the beginning, but picked up where it left off, five minutes in -- and this despite the fact that the actors backstage were arguing strenuously for the full re-start. That was the greater injury to the work, in the end, and it bothers me that that audience left not having seen an even adequate account of the piece, notwithstanding the sterling work the actors all did to try and make up the ground. But of course you wouldn't know that if you'd never been in the room.
I guess the set of proposals that you might extrapolate from these objections must seem absurd, and I suppose some of them probably are at a certain scale. But ever since that horrible shuddery Saturday night, I haven't been able to get out of my mind one of my favourite images from my last few years of theatre-going: when the Present Company, from New York, came to London to present Julia Barclay's work for the first time at CPT during my tenure there, a double-bill called Word to No One, and for whole stretches of that I had only one eye on the actors and the other on the lighting designer, a beautiful (in every way) guy called Justin Sturges, sitting on the floor, with the theatre's crappy twelve-channel manual board, operating the lights not off a plan, not off a series of cue points, but off the script that he had in his head, and the feel he had from sitting in the room with the audience and the actors. Different every night. He knew what he had to play with, and he played with it, just as the actors did. It wasn't, by a hundred miles, as visually beautiful as the stunning design Anna Watson did for Speed Death, with the (to me) remarkable resources at her disposal. But it was musical, it was generous, it was participating, it was alive. It was light behaving like light, amid a roomful of people behaving like people. And, quite a lot of the time, the doors were open.
I had better admit that much of the blame, or the responsibility anyway, rests with my inexperience. If I go back to the Drum -- and in ever so many ways I hope that's a when rather than an if -- I suspect I would be in a better position to say, can we operate lights and sound from within the room, and can we not run this off cans, and so on. I wouldn't so much accept that the machine knows best. What the machine knows is how to preserve the operation of the machine, and its connection with the room where the theatre happens is loyal and well-intended but precarious and, ultimately, like all unmusical phenomena, meaningless.
Anyway. Enough of that. I'm just interested in the invisible assumptions, and not least in how easy it is to be seduced by their effects. I found myself thinking a lot: no wonder so many directors turn in to such assholes.
Another minor disappointment, I guess, is that, for various reasons (and I suppose perhaps above all because it meant too much to us), the performance on press night really never warmed up: it went through all the right motions in the right order -- and that's no mean feat with such a fiendishly difficult and complicated piece -- but the spark just wasn't there, and we weren't surprised when the Guardian review that arose (and yeah, no, no other broadsheets -- sweet of you to even imagine anyone else among the London critics even knowing where Plymouth is...) was kind of mixed: bringing us back to earth with a bump after a very nice preview and a neat first night mini-review from somebody called The Happy Robot. I guess Lyn Gardner's not saying anything that Happy Robot doesn't say, but he sounds more turned on by it, and of course he isn't compelled to give us a star rating. Don't worry, I'm not about to go off on one (another one) about the star thing, but suffice it to say that I've had four star reviews for much less interesting and less developed work, simply by setting the bar lower and clearing it. I don't think that's the culture Lyn would speak up for, but it's a shame that that's what that three-star rating says on her behalf. The positive stuff is not drowned out exactly, but ultimately that fourth star is, if nothing else, probably the difference between being able to work towards a future life for the piece, and it disappearing at the end of this week.
Screw it, I'm going to say this: it's the bravest and boldest work I've done in years, and in many ways the most achieved, and it's miserable and painful to think that it all comes down to fourteen performances that most people with any interest in my work were never going to be able to see. It's not a perfect piece, and Lyn's probably right that more working time would have helped. On the other hand, I'm surprised by her objection to it not being narratively "strong" enough. The elliptical and half-hidden narrative is, apparently not-quite-needless to say, a choice. I'm not one of those hairshirt experimentalists who despises story or disagrees with the fundamental importance of narrative to our lives and behaviours and relationships: but I think the idea that a theatre piece ought to tell a story is basically misguided. As human beings we don't experience stories. We experience ideas, images, moments, indications, and we sort through them using a bunch of different ordering and mnemonic technologies, of which narrative is one of the strongest and most effective. It's important that we tell stories to each other, and some of the fragments that come to us in our experience will of course be other people's stories, and that's important too. But for story to be meaningful, we have to order -- in other words, to author -- it for ourselves. I want theatre, the art form that is most like lived experience, to be faithful to that process. Stories are not what we see, or hear, or sense: they are what we remember, or what we may sometimes predict. So when you come to the theatre I want to give you an array of vivid and polyvalent experiences -- ideas, images, moments, indications -- and I want the sorting of those experiences into whatever kind of story makes sense to you (if that's what you want) to be your task for the onward journey. Those of us who made the work have our own ideas, sure, but equally, much of the excitement for us is knowing how many stories we may be initiating that we don't know, that we've never heard.
Which reminds me of what happened on the second night, the first Friday. That was a great experience: the performance was way better than the first, everything was much more settled, the springy rhythms of the dialogue were more surely felt, it all added up to the piece I hoped we were making. TRP threw us a kind bash afterwards, throughout which I sat contentedly on my increasingly stately-galleon rump while folks came over and perched in the vacant chair next to me and told me nice things about the show. Even at the theatre not everyone digs the piece, not by a long and squeaky chalk, but there's no doubt that some folks -- mostly those who find themselves able to let it all happen to them without feeling the need to analyse or tidy stuff up as it's going along -- are very profoundly touched by Speed Death, they seem to recognize at a deep and intuitive level what it is that we've been trying to do, and they are genuinely excited and moved, and that's great. The best remarks, for me -- some of the best things anyone's ever said about anything I've ever done -- came from one person connected with the production (I won't name her because I haven't asked her if I can) who turns out to be synaesthetic. After telling us that Speed Death reminded her of the first time she heard The Rite of Spring, she talked a little bit about the colours she'd experienced while she was watching it, and then said that quite a lot of the show had tasted to her of chocolate trifle. -- Not only that, but she said she didn't normally like chocolate trifle, but she'd enjoyed it during the show. It's completely impossible to imagine a better review than that.
Ach, it's been a fantastic experience. And these actors, my God! Let me name them right here: Gemma Brockis, Catherine Dyson, Lucy Ellinson, Sebastien Lawson, Finlay Robertson. And let me name also Wendy Hubbard, our n+1th Beatle; and Naomi Dawson and Anna Watson, our design team. All these people, all of them, working so kindly and carefully and warmly and with such evident regard for each other, and with such a complete lack of vanity or histrionics, that it was never less than easy to forget that I was, day in, day out, asking them to, y'know, walk through fire. What an honour it's been for me to advance my work through theirs.
OK, enough. Other stuff. Plymouth. The National Marine Aquarium! I made friends with the cow fish. It grunts when you pick it up; I can relate. (You're not allowed to pick it up, sadly, but the label says...) And we spent a long time staring in dire upset at a peculiarly disturbing, pale, etiolated octopus, only to notice eventually that the octopus we were supposed to be looking at was actually hiding in a little cave on the other side of the tank, and what we'd been examining all that time was something that had obviously, er... come out of the octopus at some point. Taxi for Dr Cousteau.
Oh and we went back to the Gin Factory for more cocktails. I stuck with my favourite from the previous visit but that was probably foolish, I was outdone by my colleagues on every side. Particular kudos to Fin who had the gumption to order something called a, what?, a Custard Boy Collins or something, that tasted of apple custard. One sip and it was like I'd died and gone to primary school.
And then, the night before I left, a two-days-premature birthday party for me: a surprise and a complete delight. The gang bought me a bunch of great skate stuff, and Fin's cats got me a copy of Neil Bartlett's new novel, which I didn't even know existed and which looks characteristically sumptuous; and, ah, well, there may have been some sort of old-school porn magazine too, though let me stress that it was only politeness that compelled me to stare at it in gaping and tearful awe for an entire hour while the party continued around me. Sebastien whipped up a beautiful warm salad and we drank a pleasant array of, oh, pretty much everything we could see, and Death Cab for Cutie were on the stereo, and Jon Spooner was on the sofa, and everything was just utterly butterly beautiful. What a wrench, to come away.
London. The Zizek documentary at the ICA. Better than the reviews were mostly saying; or, rather, no better than the reviews but good fun nonetheless. The man is just so relentlessly interesting and charismatic and there's so much to enjoy in his thinking, and not least simply in his blithely amused horror at the nominal (and somewhat mimed) crisis of his own near-psychotic detachment from other people. Also he is still basically Slovenian Tassos. (Opening for Fat Travis any day now.)
And Leaves of Glass at the Soho. Loads of brilliant writing from Philip Ridley, as ever; some great acting from all four of them, though for me I'd have to say Ben Whishaw is still in a class of his own: he really does confirm his burgeoning reputation as the outstanding actor of his generation: his intelligence, his grace, his musical control, his daring. If any word of backlash has reached you, don't believe it, it's motivated by fear. On the whole I didn't find the production so convincing, the staging was a bit drab, there were occasional slumps. Admittedly it's a more tonally muted play than The Pitchfork Disney or Mercury Fur: it's less jagged, closer perhaps to Vincent River. But even so I wasn't sure that the production was able to meet the play unreservedly right at its pounding heart. Still, good to see, and Phil's writing continues to dazzle and inspire.
What else? Some interesting time working a bit on An Apparently Closed Room -- though stymied a bit by a double-booking at the studio; Theron was on good form, despite being in recovery from the previous day's Grunts for the Arts event on Hackney Marshes, in which he'd competed in the 400m Butoh race. (Best. Mental. Image. Ever.) Catching up on some of the new music that hasn't had my attention in the past few weeks: I'm particularly liking Commuter Anthems by Opsvik & Jennings, on Rune Grammofon. Watching a lot of West Wing, though I'm working through Season 3 which I think everyone acknowledges was a bit of a dip.
And just beginning to fret a little bit about how my diary goes basically blank from the beginning of September. It's pretty busy up till then, with Longwave opening at the Lyric in about three weeks, and Hippo World Guest Book premiering in the Artsadmin Summer Season before that, and a new home show to write with Lucy Ellinson. And lots of conversations and little nibbles and such like. But post-Edinburgh, yikes. You can almost smell the tumbleweed. What an odd life. What a rubbish time to have left my heart and my homies in Plymouth. It's not a nice feeling that the nearest group hug is a three hour train journey away.
But I guess it'll be ok, I guess, I guess... At any rate the forecast tomorrow is for a bit of sunshine amid the showers. So, you know. Three stars, right?