Do you hear what I hear? Well, crumbs, if that's "Holiday For Bells" from Bert Kaempfert's Christmas Wonderland (the traditional festive music of choice of the Paternal Thompson Whom God Preserve during the seventies, and therefore the music I associate most in the whole world with this happy season), then it must be time for the Controlling Thompson to bring the security shutters down on the Bank, meander home through chestnut-strewn urchin-bethronged Dickensian streets, and dig out an elderly bottle of schnapps that smells like scented drawer liners. Ho to the ho to the ho. Fa to the la to the la to the la to the la to the... oh, you get the picture. The dear Christ enters in, sits down and starts singing about gold. You can see: the round green door. ...Wait, I seem to have fallen through a portal into Melbourne House's Hobbit adventure game for the ZX Spectrum. Now I'm going to have to hang around here until sunrise, waiting for the trolls to petrify. Again.
Oh, well, in the meantime, I suppose I'd better crack on with the official Thompson's Christmas post. This has come around a bit quickly, to be honest; I've only just started writing another, absolutely yule-free, post, which I'd hoped to have up by now: but other things have intervened. So that one stays in the draft folder for a while. Not sure if there's going to be any internet juice to speak of at the homestead of the Paternal Thompson Whom God Preserve -- he's been fighting an epic battle with TalkTalk (the phone providers, not the superlative 80s band) over, to cut a very long story very short, their colossal incompetence: and as a result is stranded in a kind of communications limbo which, I suspect, he's secretly rather enjoying, but which may cut me off likewise from the warps and wefts of the 21st century for the next week or so. So, my point is, this will certainly be the last Thompson's post before The Big Day; it might be reasonable to expect the post that's currently on hold to appear here towards the close of play on the 29th. Followed in pretty short order, on the 31st I expect, by the year's Furtive 50 of notable albums -- back by overwhelming public demand. (Hi, Nick Jesper, & thanks for the overwhelming demand.) So here follow a few odds and ends in lieu of the All-Star Record Breakers Christmas Special that would in years gone by have cheered us on our way. (Wow, that's the fourth gobbet of gratuitous nostalgia so far, in the space of two paragraphs. I remembered that line of John Berger's the other day: "The past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying." That's what this blog should be called, A Placenta For Dying. ...Hmm. Anyone for trifle?)
Firstly, a couple of recommendations for those who are struggling with their last-minute Christmas shopping. Neither of these suggestions will solve the problem, as both involve mail order and can hardly be guaranteed to arrive in time: but, while you're surveying the walnut cosies and electronic toenail organisers in John Lewis on Oxford Street tomorrow evening, or staring in slack-jawed astonishment at the tumbleweed bobbing lazily down the evacuated aisles of your local Woolworths, you could at least comfort yourself with looking forward to those exciting items that you know will be delivered to you in the early days of the new year.
Firstly, Rajni Shah has published a really gorgeous book & DVD documenting her performance 'Dinner With America'; it includes a substantial extract from the interview that I did here with Rajni a few months ago -- worth seeing not least for the comedy value of a page that's really just me talking about nudity in performance, with Rajni managing to make only two interjections in my monologue: viz., "[laughs]" and "Mm." Still, the remarkable images by Manuel Vason, and the accompanying DVD with three short films made by Lucy Cash, more than compensate for the effusion of plain text for which I am dismally responsible. The book and the DVD together cost a tenner and can be secured through Rajni's web site or, shortly, at Unbound: highly recommended, whether or not you've seen the piece itself.
Secondly -- and this one arrives in a tube, which surely means I have you at 'hello' -- the estimable Andrew Brewerton (of whose Raag Leaves for Paresh Chakraborty I made a not unhallooing fuss some months ago) is the first poet to be published in a new series of broadsides from force-of-nature Glenn Storhaug's excellent Five Seasons Press. The poem, a gloriously slippery, sexy, tuneful extrusion from certain fragments of Psalm 81 , is thus published on a single large sheet of toothsome paper with a phantom lipstick kiss endorsing its message: think 'Poems on the Underground', but way, way upscale and a fair bit more sensually alive than you'll normally see on the Northern line. The publication isn't yet announced on the Five Seasons web site but I dare say if you email Glenn via the address provided, negotiations might already be entered into. I'm excited to see what else emerges in this series; this is the loveliest imaginable beginning. At any rate, keep an eye on Five Seasons: evidently their relationship with Arts Council England may be at an end, and subscriptions will therefore be sought for future publications. People of Thompson's, this means you.
Another premature manifestation of Noel Baba's giddying beneficence presented itself quite unexpectedly at about ten past three this morning. (Those who fear this is about to lurch into a Sally Jesse Raphaelesque confession about having been molested by Santa can rest easy: it's not, at least not this year.) I was startled into waking by the unexpected sound of the sting that used to end Newsround. [Incidentally, for those who click on that link: I think I'm a little bit in love with Mr James Tye, director of the British Safety Council, who is featured about 1'45" in; seldom can a man have so magnificently emanated the pure essence of safety.] I'd fallen (quite briefly) asleep with the radio on, and missed the start of what turned out to be a whole three hour sequence of programmes in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, of which regular Thompson's readers will know I am a foaming, gibbering, occasionally insensate fan: and which -- specifically, the restlessly ingenious John Baker -- had created that musical morsel for a programme of earlier vintage called New Worlds. I'd heard almost none of this stuff before and it was as exciting to happen upon it (or be happened upon by it) as it was infuriating not to have heard about it beforehand. Happily, I can at least be unto you a sign. (*straightens cardboard and tinsel halo*) All three hours of this Radiophonic programming, including a fabulous opening documentary from 1971 -- cheerily called "Electronic Tunesmiths" -- can be Listened [to] Again at the BBC web site for the next six days. So perhaps while you're preparing your matterhorn of sprouts on Christmas Day itself, or your dad, dressed as Richard Serra, is causing a rivulet of molten brandy butter to trickle down the ramps of a model Guggenheim in your kitchen, you can be whistling imperviously along with -- frankly -- some of the scariest melonfarming music ever created.
More likely, however, you are, as I am, interested only in one crucial cultural item this Christmas and nothing else:
What more is needed? I mean, sure, I've been grappling with what is undoubtedly the Book Of The Year (were we doling out such baleful rosettes), John Tilbury's exhausting -- no, I mean exhaustive; no, wait, stet -- biography of Cornelius Cardew, arguably the most important figure in the British musical avant garde of the past fifty years, and certainly the most fascinating and remarkable in his persistent and intrepid pursuit of a public political role and substance for his work, a quest which took him on one of the most extraordinary artistic journeys it's possible to imagine. Tilbury and Cardew were close colleagues and Tilbury's strenuous diligence in accounting thoroughly and scrupulously for Cardew's life and work in all the contexts to which they are relevant produces a profoundly sober and intermittently inspirational thousand-page volume (edited, incidentally, by holder of the Thompson's Order of Merit, Harry Gilonis) of inexpressible value and importance. ...But when push comes to shove, the Ooh-Aah bird will always get the nod at this time of year.
Now: longtime visitors will know that I have previously posted end-of-year reviews and suchlike, summarising the high points and amplifying (sometimes almost infinitely) on my misgivings about everything else. No such flummery for 2008 (except for the record reviews which will follow in the dying hours of the year): I think I wrote about pretty much everything I wanted to write about, so feel free to trawl back and create your own highlights reel. (You may find it useful to play "A Day Like This" by Elbow for additional auld lang syne brownie points.) The only thing that's missing is a note about Ontroerend Goed's Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen: which I didn't write about at the time, having promised to review it for Total Theatre. I then failed to write that review (in the eerie absence of the usual gentle nagging from the editor), and the invisibility of that show on this blog has become as a consequence a deplorable lacuna -- it's the best, and certainly the most important, thing I saw all year, and I ought to have made here some attempt to explain why. I'd also have liked to post on my most recent experience of (what strikes me -- and others -- as) highly significant theatre work -- namely, the 10th birthday gig of the London Improvisers Orchestra, weirdly on board HMS President -- but that'll have to wait until you and I are having a drink together: which can only be a matter of moments, surely. I'm planning a post for the early new year that will touch on Once And For All anyway. Aside from that, I think we're done. Film of the year was Wall-E, obviously, and I'd have to say the art show I got most out of in 2008 was Tracey Emin at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, though I say that not yet having seen the current White Cube Mason's Yard show by Miroslaw Balka, of whom I am a real fan; I'll be sure to get along to that in January.
As for the more general vicarly musings in which one is tempted to indulge: well, I dunno. The year has ended bumpily, really, though I've been cheered up by some recent conversations: including an illuminating chat about Hey Mathew with Melanie Wilson and, before that, a brilliantly timely and generous pep-talk from Richard Lee at the Jerwood Space; and a couple of meetings about possible projects for the first half of 2010, both of which are making my heart beat a little faster. Also, Time Out says I've had a good year, so it must be true.
Certainly I'm pleased with the work I've done: ...Sisters was a big deal and a worthwhile project; Hey Mathew was, for all the problems around its reception (and some around its making), probably the most potentially important piece of theatre I've yet made, and certainly the most extraordinary process I've ever found myself inside: and though I'm still trying to come to terms with it all I certainly feel nonetheless, at base, a genuine pride and pleasure at having taken the risks we did, at having leapt into that void; and At Home, last weekend, ended up being a quiet joy -- raggedy-ass, seat-of-the-pants stuff, but I relished the informality and the connection, and loved working for the first time as a performer with the extraordinary Lucy Ellinson. There's been some fun teaching, some frightening and exciting poetry gigs... 'S all good.
The moan and/or fret -- because of course there has to be a moan and/or fret -- is the same one as before: the fear, not simply on behalf of my own frustration as an artist but on behalf of the culture we're supposedly trying to build and support together, that I'm more and more bumping my head on the underacknowledged glass ceiling of experimental and, particularly, devised work. Funnily enough (or not), this is exactly the feeling with which I ended 1998: that there was something deeply worrying about how the work I was doing was getting squeezed into smaller and smaller formats. Six actors (and two rabbits) in ...Sisters sounds like a big enough piece but we were crammed (to good effect, and with no discomfort, but still...) into the Gate -- a venue which punches way above its weight and which is currently run by genuinely brilliant people, but is still a wee little space when it comes to being able to make pictures, and especially (and I think this is a crucial technology in theatre) being able to make more than one thing happen on stage at the same time. And then Hey Mathew struggled to breathe at Toynbee, having discovered its perfect size and shape the week before at Theatre in the Mill -- a show with one performer isn't necessarily a small piece spatially any more than it is in its reach and reverberation. And then Lucy and I find ourselves arsing around in a terraced house in Canterbury. Which is great: but all the time, all through this year, I've found myself hankering after more. More space, more time, more people, more attention, more weight, more volume. More. Not because small can't be beautiful and not because small can't also be big, as big as big is, bigger sometimes even than that. Not because profound and important things can't happen in tiny spaces. (I nicked an exercise off James Yarker for my students at Rose Bruford a few weeks ago: make a performance in the palm of your hand. Some of the best stuff I've seen all year.) But: alongside all the arguments about what scale can do, what we can do and make and imply using the multiplicities of bigger space and bigger companies of artists, what other stories become imaginable with that level of access, alongside all of that, and all of the urge to be developing as an artist in ways that aren't only about economy and refinement but are about the ability to occupy less marginal and less constrained situations with authority and passion, alongside all of this, there's a question, isn't there?, about how my generation, the first generation to grow up with devising as a more-or-less mainstream practice, is ever going to come of age, is ever going to be asked to adapt itself to the biggest and most complex challenges that come along with our central spaces and our central concerns as makers and as people. I'm not going to get into this all again but, yeah, I absolutely believe that devising can be as responsive -- no, more responsive -- to the kinds of currents and dialogues that emerge (or used to) in the form of 'state of the nation' plays as more traditional writer-led practices are thought to be. That's a clumsy way of saying, big bold brave relevant stage-filling work shouldn't only be the preserve of top-down playwrights, and the playful and the decorative and the sweetly trivial shouldn't be the horizon of the aspirations of devisers. This is not to say that I'm sick of working upstream. I'm not sick of anything, except feeling like a 6'2" director in a six-foot box. My neck hurts, that's all. What is it Leo says that makes the President rediscover his mojo in season 1 episode 19 of The West Wing? "I'm going where I want to because a man stands up." That's it, that's exactly it. I want to stand up, and I can't, quite.
And then I think of the most intellectually and viscerally exciting experiences I've had of making work this year, and they've all been in the smallest of places, buzzing with ideas and passion and hunger and bravery and the furthest reaches of intimacy and desire: improvising in hallways and bedrooms and the spaces under tables; performing concrete poetry on the top deck of the bus; finding a whole new matrix of possibilities in a piece of clothing or in the space between the earbuds of an iPod. The best thing I did all year took a minute and a half: I sent Jonny Liron an email and said Do you want to come and talk to me about this project I'm doing? Over the last six months, Jonny's turned everything upside down for me in the most exhilarating way, and it's good to keep remembering how dismissive he is, and more than that how bored, of the old models for which I still slightly hanker. He has no use for any of the established forms and contracts and locations, and though I think I'm right to be not, in fact, done with them yet -- while I think I'm still interested in how the fixed, designated theatre space can continue to fulfil a civic function, and how the idea of the scripted play is not yet wholly exhausted, and how stories can be conceived and articulated that don't merely redescribe the same witless redundancies that have churned around our mainstream theatre culture for so long -- it's fantastic to be constantly reminded that, faced with all the weight of Arts Council applications to be completed, and marketing copy to be written as pretty much the first thing in the creative process, and endless hoops to be jumped through at the behest of even the most supportive and forward-thinking organizations, one can simply turn off the computer, head out into the world, meet up with a friend, and make theatre, right there, in the middle of the street, in the blink of an eye, the palm of the hand. I swear to Cthulhu there's more of theatre in a single dangerous kiss than in every performance of August: Osage County laid end to end (which I'm sure is how they feel anyway), for all that play's magnificent girth.
But that's not me talking myself out of wanting to bust out of this ceiling. If by doing so I did nothing more important or interesting than let some air in, that would still be worth it. Ten years ago, in 1998, I felt like this; by the end of 1999 I'd made The Consolations: seven actors, big pictures, the Place theatre, a two and a half hour show. Sure, the guy who with astounding generosity took it on himself to produce it is probably still paying it off (*wince*); and we all worked for four months for no money and I'm not in that place any more, none of us is. And the consequence was, come 2000, we were seriously in the red, and what could we do but go to Edinburgh with a show that could be performed in people's own houses... And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, or somesuch Festive nonsense. I have no idea what I just talked myself into, or out of.
There's work to do. That's for sure. ...Well, good.
On which note, time for holidays, starting now.
Thanks, though, before I amscray, to everyone who comes here, for whatever reason, and especially to everyone who comments -- I know I'm bad at replying, but I really do appreciate your engagement. As for my regal Christmas message, I hope you'll forgive me for a copy-and-paste job, but I can't do better than the following paragraph, which currently greets subscribers to the oddly named but affectionately regarded Teens Boys World: pretty much the last bastion of artistic endeavour among all the otherwise styleless and tedious sites directed at those of us who like staring humbly at pictures of unclothed 19-year-old boys who appear, illusorily but most kindly, to be pleased to see us. Their eccentrically translated Christmas greeting is my envoi, my little gift to you, in the hope that you'll carry with you these resounding words, and warm yourself by them as the year dwindles to its end. Thus:
Christmas. New Year. 2009 year. We all know, that it will be not the easiest year. Crisis will concern many of you. Very much many. Also there will be many problems. But it not the occasion grieve and also mourns. The life proceeds also it is fine! We wish that your christmas desires were executed. That the pleasure, success and belief always were with you in New Year. Problems and difficulties will pass. You will manage with them. And all will be good. And differently also cannot be. Let smiles of young boys and their charming beauty will help you to live this year adequately and without greater losses. Love to you, happiness, success and pleasure in new 2009 year!
Certes, Tiny Tim couldn't have said it better himself.
Right, I'm off to mount my scooter and sound my hooter in pursuit of yonder star. See you after the thing with the chimney and the fat guy.