Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Way upstream (a well-known ache, borne)

[I wrote this piece on October 10th, and then thought it both too slight and, in the end, too hysterical to bother posting it. But after a couple of energising days, and particularly a revivifying conversation this evening with the wonderful Tim Jeeves, I have found myself looking on it more kindly: so here it is. With a bit of luck, there will be a flurry of activity here in the next few days, but in the meantime...]

May I offer this diptych for your consideration?


I was at Toynbee Studios last night (or, as it emerged mangled from the memorybanks of one of my students earlier in the day, T-Bone Studios) for a showing of work by the dancer/choreographer Anna Krzystek and the filmmaker Lucy Cash. It was one of the most enthralling and exciting evenings out I've had in a long while.

Still is a 45-minute piece which places a solo performer (Krzystek) in a room with five video monitors (showing material by Cash) and a sound artist, Tom Murray, live-mixing a prepared score. Sitting, as it does, exactly on the virgule between installation and performance, or standing on both sides of it perhaps, it is partly an excercise in the manipulation of attention: a performer drawing and giving away attention, as well as giving it herself to the other elements of the piece, which she uses partly to orient herself. The body starts out as barely-present and somewhat object-like, but slowly (and expensively) uses the currents of spectatorial attention in the room to claim a constrained expressivity. The video images show views of and isolated elements within a room not dissimilar to the one we are actually in, but not the same; the domestic character and details of the video room also participate in the exercise of drawing and dispelling attention. In common with Krzystek's previous piece, which I didn't see, one theme is waiting: and she speaks eloquently and intriguingly afterwards about how the domestic objects that the camera dwells on are also 'waiting' -- for human intervention: the telephone waiting to ring, the lamp waiting to be switched on, the plug socket in the wall... There is a warmth to this which somewhat alleviates a (by no means unattractive) starkness in the rest of the aesthetic. The sound score mostly consists of penetrating sines, introduced, subtly altered (e.q., I think, and certainly panning) and then withdrawn; there is a structral matrix determining much of the activity, a series of time regions and of tasks, five sections of nine minutes, each further subdivided in interlocking frames.

There is a remarkable formal clarity to the piece which comes across strikingly even before the structure is explained, but also a deeply human(e) tenor. The sense of effort, of slight confusion, of loss of centre, of submission, in the performer is cumulatively moving and important. One particularly touching repeated gesture is the abrupt withdrawal of the electronic sound at some moments, at which points very often Krzystek's exhausted breathing is suddenly audible, both rhythmically continuous with the geometries of the piece and infinitely more faulty and therefore more intimate. Long periods of near-stillness and near-silence near the end, which demand as much of the audience as of both performers, are followed by a condensed, slightly puzzling coda which brilliantly reclaims some measure of privacy for the authors, lest the plain legibility, the near-transparency, of much of the activity should too quickly allow the complex human agency in the work to be dissipated or undervalued. It is exactly the right ending to exactly the right piece.

Cash's two short films are also, to some degree, about rooms, and about (fallibly) human negotiations with the behavioural grammars and associative lexis that rooms themselves imply. The first, Daynightly they re-school you The Bears -- Polka, is a twin-screen versioning of material from the 2005 performance When will the September roses bloom? Last night was only a comedy by the near-legendary Chicago performance company Goat Island (who are to split next year -- a very sad though utterly commendable arrangement), in which the company's fondness for dance sequences created out of discrete found images and acts is characteristically layered with other textual gestures and fragments (taken partly from Celan) and comedically organized relationships, creating a high-stakes network of inscrutable and yet oddly sustainable proto-narratives. The second, Sight Reading, is a more unified but no less enigmatic speculation around early 20th c. experiments into "eyeless sight" -- seeing extra-retinally, reading through the skin. It is always too easy to describe non-linear film as 'poetic' but Cash's immensely assured sense of composition and metre suggests poetry or music just as much as it explores the capacity of the specifically filmic object to contain irresolvable ambiguities and extremely partial or sketchy dynamic arguments. The constant movement between fluidity and repetitiousness, and the invocation of secluded compulsions and unknowable regulations -- features just as much of the exquisite and sympathetic choreography by Ole Birkeland -- all recalls the Quay Brothers of Institute Benjamenta, while the exceptionally poised attention to detail and to metonymic study draws perhaps from Bresson: but I've never seen anything quite like Sight Reading, all the same. It is warmer and more accessible than perhaps I've made it sound: a puzzle but not a nag.

A concluding discussion led by the filmmaker Miranda Pennell was generously illuminating, finding its own pitch and pace and acutely focused on unfolding rather than pinning-down, and on the expansive (and the searching) rather than the competitive. I could have happily sat there for the rest of the evening, listening and talking and enjoying.


From Toynbee Studios I walked directly to Liverpool St and the home train. On the seat I took, somebody had left -- how could they? -- their free Evening Standard supplement itemising 'The 1000: London's most influential people 2007'.

If, somehow, this ace piece of commentary passed you by, here are the most influential London-based theatre-persons of this year, in the order in which they appear:

The top 5: Nicholas Hytner, Alan Bennett, Judi Dench, Peter Thompson (PTA Associates), Dominic Cooke.

The rest: Michael Boyd, Michael Billington, Nicholas de Jongh, Charles Spencer, David Hare, Bill Kenwright, Rufus Norris, Lord Lloyd-Webber, Harold Pinter, Cameron Mackintosh, Stephen Daldry, Tom Morris, Ian McKellen, Maggie Smith, Sonia Friedman, Nicolas Kent, Michael Frayn, Kevin Spacey, Tom Stoppard, Vanessa Redgrave, Katie Mitchell.

Up and coming: Polly Stenham, Matt Smith (actor), Rupert Goold.

It may be worth noting that the list is compiled by a panel of ES brass and a team of "specialist contributors", of whom those who presumably had a hand in the above selection are Fiona Hughes, Louise Jury and, er, Nicholas de Jongh. Apologies if any of those three were not in fact involved in the theatre bit; I exempt them from any opprobrium that may, who knows?, follow.

OK, well, let's start with the bleedin obvious. There is no point expecting an Evening Standard supplement (as part of a risibly blatant attempt to refresh the brand and nudge it back up-market, away from the slug-low, subliterate freesheets) to be a pin-sharp analysis of the tendencies of influence in London theatre, any more than one would expect the work-experience cloakroom attendant at a lambada contest to discuss the movers and the shakers in contemporary ballet or a scabby cat in a cardboard box to produce a Powerpoint presentation on salient trends in the world of haute couture.

Nor is it a totally ridiculous list, obviously, if by influential we actually mean powerful and prominent. What director of the National Theatre wouldn't merit a place, for heaven's sake? (Answers on a postcard marked 'Trevor Nunn Competition' to the usual address, please.) Who could deny the significance of Baron Loud-Warbling, the clout of Cameron Makingtosh, or the bountiful phenomenon that is dog-loving Kevin "Here boy!" Spacey?

But. But. There are obviously other names on the list that would at the very least make anybody with a professional interest in theatre question the model of 'influence' that the Standard is working with. 'Icons', to borrow an overworked word, they may be, but on whom do Maggie Smith or Vanessa Redgrave nowadays exert an influence? (Especially with Loose Ends presumably being faded Nedlessly to black at the end of its current run.) I suppose the answer's completely obvious: West End audiences with more money than sensibility, and the time-harried editors of colour supplements. But can any actor currently under the age of 35 really be looking to either of those great dames for information on stage performance? To how many agenda-setting playwrights is Alan Bennett exemplary (at an artistic level, I mean; I imagine his commercial acuity is inspiring to some, and his national pedestal to others)?

In that context, the extraordinarily duff stroke of classifying Rupert Goold as "up-and-coming" seems all the more bizarre, or, I suppose, totally predictable. Maybe three years ago, yes; but Goold's track record now, his industry, his apparently unflagging intelligence, and the white heat of his ascendance, make him surely one of the very most influential directors in the country right now, insofar as he is surely drawing the attentions of other directors and theatre artists, both older and younger than him, who recognize his qualities (rather than contenting themselves with some vague sense of his 'promise') and aspire to similar heights. In terms of the ecology of British theatre, Goold is right now influential in a way that, for example, Stephen Daldry surely hasn't been for some time.

See also the Standard's grudging comments on two of the (few) other genuinely influential figures on the list in respect of the artform right now. Tom Morris has possibly "too much ... clout" at the National, though he is, sapristi!, "pioneering multimedia forms of theatre" (...but that'll never catch on, surely?!); Katie Mitchell's "latest fad" [for, er, multimedia] "could drive her into an unrewarding cul-de-sac". (Surely An Unrewarding Cul-de-Sac is the title of Alan Bennett's next-but-one volume of memoirs and occasional pieces?) If influence is about having some suasive impact on the shape of the artform as it continues to develop, surely Morris and Mitchell are absolutely critical presences, whose importance only slightly resides in the particular aesthetics of their current or last productions. They're important because of the kind of attitudes and aspirations they represent. (In which light perhaps the list's most glaring omission is obvious: how about Lyn Gardner in place of our esteemed triumvirate of DWM's? And why no one from ACE, while we're at the acronyms?)

All of this commentary is saying nothing new, of course, it's just gum-gnashing at a bit of toady natter-jack with 'landfill in 72 hours' written all over it : but in the aftermath of the Artsadmin showings, I did want to get at least as far as this point -- not by any means, I think, new to the Thompsonian baileywick, but worth restating, so as to make the WHOLE WORLD feel to me a bit less depressing before I throw in tonight's towel: that the really pernicious and retrograde aspect of the Evening Standard list is not who's in or who's out, we can play that wretched game till the cows come home, freshen up, call their mates, meet up for a Thai, get smashed on pina coladas, head up west and end up going back with Anthony Costa to his luxury penthouse flat for an ill-advised "nightcap".

No, what bugs me is that the model of 'influence' that they use and endorse is so inadequate. The real picture is -- sure -- incredibly complicated, but the basic tendencies of it are important and, I think, unarguable: that influence in any meaningful (by which I mean productive) sense is not 'bestowed' by the mighty on the jostling many, because those 'with' influence are not its generators. No, it is a by-product of attentiveness, and as such it arises in audiences, and particularly (of course) in specialist audiences. The best makers -- the most attentive makers -- produce, as audiences, the effects of influence within themselves. And one consequence of this, which must surely be recognizably true to anyone with half an eye on the industry as a whole, is that at least as much of the flow of influence is, as it were, uphill, from the unknown to the known, the pioneering to the powerful, the experimentalists to the establishment.

Lest the idea of an uphill current disturb you, or put you too much in mind of the exertions of salmon (a truly devoted & disgruntled constituency if every there was one), may I reintroduce the spatial reimagining I gleaned from the great Wobbly storyteller U. Utah Phillips? Loyal Thompson's customers will know that, rather than fiddle-faddling about with labels such as 'experimental' or, saints preserve us, 'avant-garde', I sometimes have recourse to Phillips's language of 'mainstream' and 'upstream':

"To hell with the mainstream. It's polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows."

His pollution vs. purity schtick is, though somewhat true, off-topic here. But the general topology of this analysis feels to me irrefutable. Katie Mitchell's current working language has clearly been renewed and refreshed by makers up in the wilderness; Tom Morris's greatest strength and value has always been his willingness to range up-hill as well as down dale in pursuit of whatever's next. I don't doubt for a second that the current collaboration between Filter and David Farr is a manifestation of the same tendency: obviously Farr is hardly a grand old man himself but he's smart enough to recognize that he can be stimulated and challenged by getting himself in a room with a youngish company whose identity is still forming and who presumably, in turn, are excited by newer groups emerging in their wake at, say, BAC.

This is obvious but it demands restating, in the light not just of this Evening Standard exercise but also of the Artsadmin showings with which I began. How many of us were there to see Still and Sight Reading? I don't know, maybe thirty: half of whom, probably, if not more, were artists. But that's where (in a sense) it all begins: and I think it's terrifically important that artists such as Krzystek and Cash are acknowledged and hailed for their, as it were, ecological significance; and that such mini-gatherings of kindred artists and close friends should not be denigrated for their apparent insularity or hermeticism: a kind of judgement that is levelled not only by halfwit commentators but also, more or less overtly, by ACE, which continues to use 'public benefit' as a criterion for assessing projects for funding, with very little apparent understanding of how, and when, and where, such benefit is activated or manifested. Of course these trickle-down (or, perhaps, rather, trickle-up) effects are untraceable, except anecdotally, and, moreover, ultimately unmanageably complex.

Public benefit, after all, is itself a species of influence, and it too occurs chaotically, as an unpredictable and unchartable net of meaning-generative encounters, of people, touching, instants. All of us know this first-hand. Yes, Simon McBurney has influenced me, Robert Lepage has influenced me. (And Lepage has clearly influenced McBurney, and McBurney has influenced Brook, and Brook has influenced, I dunno, the Buddha, and on and on the artistic Slinky tumbles its way freakily upstairs.) But what about the poets, the visual artists, the filmmakers? On the train today I was thinking about the importance of layering in my work, and wondering where it came from. Most likely, I think, Mike Oldfield. Or, every so often a line in my art-writing catches my eye and I think: Prynne? No. Beckett? No. Ah, yes: it's Kenny Everett.

And then what about those who frame the lives we're trying to lead? How has theatre production changed in London since Ken Livingstone was installed as Mayor and began his radical overhaul of transport policy and charging? How many more people travel to work by bus, now, I wonder, and how many of them are going to work in a rehearsal room, and to what degree is their mood different when they arrive from what it might have been ten years ago? How does that change what is possible?

And the favourite godparents? Where are they accounted for? And the special English or art or science teachers? (Everybody has one.) And what about this ex-boyfriend, who broke my heart, or that one, who self-harmed, or that one, who wasn't really my boyfriend at all though I loved him more than any of them and could never bring myself to say it? And what about the view from the top of the Oxo tower? And the waterfowl in St James's Park? And the difference it makes to make notes with a decent fountain pen, or a 4B pencil, instead of some gnawed blue biro I found on the bus? And if the pleasure of a new soft pencil makes enough of a difference to my day that we solve a problem in rehearsal and I leave feeling happy enough that I smile at the work-experience cloakroom attendant at that evening's lambada contest, and she smiles back, does that count as +1 on the 'public benefit' scorecard?

This abundant efflorescence of speculated microcollaborations, this declaration of interdependence, is intended not to obscure or invalidate the whole notion of influence, for which we all, in the end, I suspect, have some use. It's to say that when we give such a partial account of our working practice and its cultural ramifications, even in haste or by way of shorthand, that its complexity is brushed aside and its continual built-in problematizing of falsified notions of prestige and artistic authority is censored, it's a betrayal of the audiences and the other artists who should properly be able to depend on us. If Nicky de Jongh is content with that sort of dereliction, I can but hope that the virgins who await him in the afterlife are all replicants of Dame Maggie and Dame Vanessa and Dame Kevin and such. He succeeds only in confirming his hopeless irrelevance, at least in relation to the bigger picture that it's our responsibility, yours and mine, to conceive.

[Incidentally, Theron Schmidt has an excellent review of Still at the Writing from Live Art blog: it was written independently of mine, and I guess at pretty much the same time, so the correspondences are quite pleasing. And let me also direct you offsite to an extremely fine post on the vexed and vexatious topic of political theatre over at Andy Field's blog; it feels to me that the above might be taken to abut, somewhat, his thesis -- with which, at any rate, I find myself utterly and very gratefully in agreement.]


Lauren said...

Thank you for publishing this (esp. 2) I like the idea of upstream and mainstream - very useful concept.

Off I head, back to the wilderness.

simon said...

"Upstream" is a fine word. The right word. Concepts of purity aside, it signals the INTENT perfectly. I shall use it. Hope you're well.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

I think there's some significance that, even amongst those (for want of a better phrase) in the know, there has been virtually no comment about one of the top five being a) a press agent and b) that press agent: Peter Thompson. I'm afraid that my own pronounced views (pronounced: "views") on the matter must remain off the record.