Frustrating times here at Thompson Towers, o best beloved.
Frustrating partly because for some reason the wireless reception here has suddenly got really bad, to the extent that for large portions of the day there's really no connectivity to speak of. Which is compounding another frustration: I've been working on a post that's marginally more complicated than usual multimediawise, and the formatting's defeating me a bit (meaning that I'm having to really get down and dirty with the html, which is kind of intense compared with the usual blithe inadequacies of Blogger), and only having a connection for thirty seconds every ten minutes is kind of making that even more of an uphill struggle. Also I installed the BBC i-Player and it did bad things to my computer, the kind of bad you need an anatomically-correct doll to be able to describe. (If you've had the same problem, you need to go get KClean.) Yesterday morning I literally tripped over the old Olympia typewriter that I bought when I was doing YEAH BOOM and oh man it looked good. So don't be surprised if Thompson's Bank migrates to self-mimeographed hardcopy like an old-school zine. See, that would be kind of cool anyway. ...Also I reinstalled a counter here, which went missing in the upgrade in the autumn, and since I last checked, Thompson's readership has reached dizzying levels. (By which I mean, there are more people who read this nonsense regularly than I know by name; let alone the thousands who apparently drop by accidentally because I once mentioned Echo & the Bunnymen.) So, you know, being mostly unable to post at the moment is a bit of a drag: you, my public, will all desert me and go off and read Keiron Quirke and I'll have to go back to telesales.
And I'm frustrated with my usual duvet-hugging Januariness when there's a whole lot I need to be getting on with. By the time I've got both socks on it's nearly time for Countdown. (No, I still don't have a tv, but I do like to mark that part of the day by stabbing myself in the eye with a TCP-soaked cocktail umbrella for forty-five minutes.) And then before I know it, PM is on the radio and it's time for a nap whether I want one or not. And then there's dinner and all the other blogs and I've barely sharpened my last remaining wit before it's time for beddybyes and a stern resolve to get up at, like, 4.30am tomorrow and do better, which isn't going to happen, not since I learned to deactivate all three of my alarms while I'm sleeping. This is not the attitude with which we won the war. This is not the go-getting lifestyle with which I might just recapture the 'promising newcomer' status in which I revelled a mere five years and 56 lbs of adipose self-defeat ago. I should be out playing squash with John Tiffany. I should be falling out of a taxi sans underwear with Loretta Swit or one of the horses from War Horse. This time last January I was wandering along the harbourfront around Sydney Opera House, eating extravagant capsicum-heavy salads in the summer heat. This year, if I leave the house at all, it is entirely and exclusively in order to watch Jon Spooner eating a pint of sausage rolls in the BFI bar.
Next! I'm frustrated because my teenage crush on Barack Obama suddenly collapsed between Iowa and New Hampshire, some days prior to Hillary's Visible Emotion (amazing what the techno boffins can do these days) and by no means due to any softening of my heart as regards that loon-eyed dissembling neoconservative soultrap -- no, not even though, according to the Lord High Waste of Space a.k.a. David Aaronovitch, being an out-and-proud Hillary-hater automatically makes me a misogynist. I have been a regular little Obamaniac for quite some time, but there was some point, I think maybe during the Iowa victory speech for which he won such plaudits, that his seductive West Wing rhetoric suddenly revealed itself to me in all its reverberant emptiness. I am awfully sad to say it and a bit frustrated, because it leaves me the best part of a year in which to (a) root for Edwards for as long as he stays in the race, and (b) find the whole process undifferentiatedly depressing thereafter -- which the anarchosyndicalist in me thought I should have been doing all this time anyway. But there we are. In the event I shall probably still support Obama (for the nothing that my 2p is worth) for the single global shift that takes place, if only for a moment, if a mixed-race candidate succeeds to the White House -- and because at worst nothing in him suggests to me the stigma of evil with which I genuinely believe Clinton to be touched. But Obama is the exact opposite of a Magic Eye picture: if you stare long enough at what appears to be a smart three-dimensional President-in-waiting, your eyes refocus and suddenly you're just looking at an inscrutable field of basically meaningless patterns.
I am also, to be a bit serious for a moment, pretty frustrated with the continuing ACE debacle and the way it's being handled. I'm not going to say any more than I already have in various places -- some of which commentary was, admittedly, probably not well-judged. It's certainly not the time for turbulence -- though I can't help thinking that's partly why it was important to express some alarm and disappointment when a much more visible figure used the crisis as a platform for making remarks that seemed interpretable only as divisive. Though something interesting did come out of it, for me, which is this. Patently the 'new writing' vs. 'new work' tension is a sustainable binary only for those who (a) have a personal vested interest in endlessly restating it, or (b) consider their practice to be located within a particular tradition, or more precisely a heritage, that is (somehow) significantly "the envy of the world" and "the richest theatre in the world". That latter is a very recognizable narrative, though I didn't entirely understand until this past week how important it was to the proponents of the "play culture". (At least for my respected colleague David Eldridge, whose words those are: but I bet it's a very widely shared position.) I'd have liked to be able to discuss the formative influence of that 'national heritage' pressure on individual practice, but David has chosen to shut the discussion down at his blog, as is his privilege of course. ("My blog. My rules." That's his pithsome summary -- a formulation knowingly and impishly poised halfway between parent and landlord...)
Before continuing I must say very plainly that what follows is not targeted at David -- speaking as a bit of a coward, I value much more those moments when he and I are either in accord or at peace: rare enough given that we're both, I guess, pretty quick to mistake an olive branch for a sharp stick you could have someone's eye out with. I've no real interest in -- or overmuch hope of -- changing David's mind about anything, and anyway I'd much rather he changed mine: the whole of my story as an artist is of having my mind changed by people who are smarter than me, and I love it when it happens. Nor do I criticise the way he wants to run his blog, it's entirely his space, and the basic ethical commitment at Thompson's -- no moderation and no deletion, and you're welcome to test me on that if you really must -- certainly doesn't suit everybody's modus operandi. But our recent exchanges have helped to crystallize a tendency that may, in the end, be a more significant division -- which it seems not impertinent to describe (as a tendency and in no way ad hominem) even during this period of standing shoulder to shoulder.
The distinction I have in mind is, in essence, between artists who are basically disinclined to trust discourse around their work, and those for whom it is an absolutely essential component of their practice. Between those for whom criticism as an analytically-powered intellectual response to work and its fundamentals is barely distinguishable from abuse or "slagging" or the smug and trivial strains of "quasi-academic" blowhards; and those for whom criticism, as an intense and struggling engagement with the contexts and conditions in which work is made as well as the content and functioning of that work itself, is pretty much continuous with, or itself a privileged part of, the processes of making and sharing. Between those who want the work to "speak for itself", to find its producers and audiences and reviewers without mediation or interference; and those for whom such a pure and self-articulating engagement seems so obviously impossible as to border on the kind of wilful abnegation that sustains religious faith.
Of course almost everyone will refuse anything other than a balanced position somewhere between the two. Or if not balanced then conflicted: e.g., David insists in his blog post of January 8th that: "If New Writing is to no be longer a priority and must share equal status within our theatre culture with New Work then we should have a debate about it", but three days later comments: "this is my blog and this is the end of this particular debate in this place. This blog isn’t just for discussion of theatre and actually my script-writing is more important than blog commentary." In a sense of course there's no conflict, he's merely saying that he doesn't want to host the debate that he thinks should be taking place: but he's also very clearly stating that the play-writing is more important than the writing around it. From the other side of this particular faultline -- and I accept I am probably in a small minority here, but perhaps a growing one -- there is really no productive distinction to be made between the work and the commentary: each is an articulation, a development, an amplification of, an argument on behalf of, the other.
That's partly why I wanted this blog to exist -- though I think it has probably sometimes caused disrepair to some professional relationships, and I feel genuine sorrow about that; but I wanted to open out (and at the same time record) the making processes that I'm constantly engaged in, and the conversations -- more often than not conflicts and excitements within myself -- that flow in and out of those processes. I wanted to be as honest about my passions and my intellectual commitments as about my doubts and my emotional failures: and in the present climate hereabouts, the former are, as many will attest, almost more exposing and more likely to incite derision than are the latter. Like David, I had no intention of making this a "theatre blog", and have tried to write as much as possible about poetry and music and art and everyday life and various low-falutin' enthusiasms. But unlike David, I never conceived of making my blog a space of leisure or respite, of wanting to talk about other stuff as a way of getting some downtime away from theatre. I don't feel I ever am away from theatre in that sense, and if I talk about art or music (or friends or travels or pornography or silly YouTube videos) I think it's always obvious that the muttering you can hear in the background, were it to be isolated and amplified, would clearly say: "How is this like theatre? How can I make use of this?"
And that in the end is part of the distinction. If anything might be an interesting model for theatre, and if the conversation around those models is also a potential model in itself, then you can never be, as it were, off-duty. Perhaps it seems very sad, not to be able to have any kind of conversation or dialogue that doesn't eventually lead back to theatre: but I suppose, the way it is for me, the possibilities of theatre simply contain everything else. Which is exactly why I choose to work in theatre and feel so estranged from, for example, the kind of argument that Sam West was advancing on the radio the other day (and David also adumbrates to some extent in his post), that small-scale theatres like the Bush are valuable because people graduate from them into bigger spaces and to the National and the West End and thus -- as if it were as natural as changing out of shorts into long trousers -- into film and finally winning an Oscar. This is of course an incredibly familiar trope (or, rather, a protein chain of tropelets) which again plugs into this idea of "cultural capital". That none of us can know who, out of the next 200 actors to tread the boards of the Bush, will in thirty years time be Antony Hopkins; who, out of the next four dozen writers it pulls out of its slush pile, will win an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and raise their fist in a state of all-Welland-good to declaim "The British are Coming!".
This is not a debate about the uses of theatre, about instrumentality in general. I very much welcome the thrust of the McMaster report (and hope the Arts Council survives long enough to enact its recommendations: which, on both counts, I hope it will) but I can't disclaim an interest in what theatre can be used to do socially and politically. Obviously in my case it's not about the arts generating 10 per cent of the UK's GNP, a remarkable statistic which somebody mentioned somewhere today, I can't remember where; it's not about the New Labour pre-McMaster notion that cultural activity is little more than an alternative delivery route for a nebulously defined and barely funded complex of social inclusion policies; it is, of course, about establishing a tree-hugging anarchosyndicalist Utopia before the end of April -- or, with tongue minutely disembedded from cheek, it's about wondering why, exactly, such an attractive and urgent-sounding revolution appears presently to be impossible, and what the most fundamental of live arts might be able to do about that.
The manifestly unrealistic aspirational qualities of that programme must be completely maddening to those who cannot share or recognize them; in fact I know exactly that sense of infuriation from my long (and very deeply treasured) friendships with certain Marxist colleagues whose confidence in working with those ideas as living technologies is so virtuosic, so total, that one's critical response seems always pre-exhausted by the time it is formed. Nonetheless, what such a panoptic view of theatre both requires and is everywhere stimulated by is its sense of an art at the service of bigger ideas; a sense that it might be able not just to present some reflection on contemporary social mores or the state of democratic politics, but actually to participate in the formation of mores, the reimagining of democratic imperatives. In other words, that it might not merely report back from the public sphere, but itself be a public territory, continuous on every side with the projects of equable living.
Viewed through that lens, to see commentary as at best a kind of DVD extra or as a role-playing game which can produce interesting results but is not in itself a part of the work, seems an arguably peculiar and certainly regrettable refusal. And the reason why it's worth saying all this right now is that, while not interfering in the present response to the ACE horrors, it all pertains to the scope of that response. When we have developed, and got used to conversing within, a critical discourse which functions as an essential part of theatre, and which has fundamental political and ethical questions in its sights, then we have in our armoury (and no less in the best and most pacific parts of our apparatus too) a set of ideas and languages which can inspire and compel in the most indispensably forward-looking ways. We do not need recourse to a nationalistic, heritage-based, retrospective platform of a "best in the world" culture. (When we say that, against whom have we imaginatively pitted ourselves, and to what ends?) We do not find ourselves so easily persuaded into the spectacular prosecution of an us-vs.-them battle with apparently philistine bureaucrats, because arguments about 'distinctiveness' and 'value for money' (and even the fundamental question of any public subsidy for the arts, which has of course arisen again in recent days in the usual quarters) are conducted in entirely different terms.
(You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I met another one, once. ...Course, she's writing for Holby City now.)
Anyhoo. With the forward-looking thing still, yknow, buzzing in my ear, and with everyone else's looking-forward-to lists going stale on the shelves all about me, perhaps I might conclude this post, and shake off the last of my frustrations, by very briefly naming a few things that seem likely to be worth a look over the next few weeks.
I Am Falling, directed by the highly estimable Carrie Cracknell in collaboration with the choreographer Anna Williams, is already open at the Gate, where it is receiving droolsome notices, and can be seen there until February 2nd. Text and motion, whatever will they think of next, etc.
I am overjoyed -- not the sequel (yet) to I Am Falling, but simply a report of an unfamiliar sensation within the Controlling Thompson's frame -- that Simon Kane is retrieving from the archive his Jonah Non Grata for a limited season at the Shunt Vaults, from 23rd January. Regular readers of the comments fields here will know how much Simon Le P K and I fucking hate each other [winking emoticon here] and it is therefore through Olympically gritted teeth that I recall Jonah as one of the half dozen greatest solo shows I have ever witnessed. This revival might be garbage, who knows, but the several times I saw it at CPT, it frightened and baffled and upset me and made me laugh, all in ways that I normally associate only with getting out of the bath in a heavily mirrored room. It is ruthlessly inventive, acutely painful and, oh, stuff. It is also very titillatingly close to this new invention of mine called theatre.
Speaking of CPT, I wholeheartedly recommend catching up with Paperweight there at the end of the month. I saw an early scratch some months ago and loved its ingeniousness and delicacy. The performers are Sebastien Lawson and Tom Frankland, both stupendous, and the director is Jamie Wood (Escapology, Longwave, bags of stuff not by me, etc.). On a point of principle [I've just corrected that from "a pint of principle", which seems a bit de trop], I only ever like the earliest scratch version of everything I get to see more than once, and I don't doubt that Wood has at any rate focused his directorial interventions on entirely erasing all traces of ingeniousness and delicacy: but I nonetheless warmly urge you to go and check this out. It is very likely to show signs of actual genius.
From our "another chance to see" department, the site-specifics company Angels in the Architecture are, from February 1st, importing their acclaimed take on Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage into Kensington Palace -- a bit of an upgrade from its 2006 outing at St Barnabas chapel in Soho. In these auspicious surroundings, any resemblance to Di, Queen of Hearts will, I'm assured, be concertedly coincidental. I've never seen Angels at work before but anyone who saw director Rebecca McCutcheon's revelatory treatment of Philip Ridley's Vincent River at Trafalgar Studios in November last year will know that, unlike many a site-speccer, she knows how to expand outwards from a text rather than stretch it from without to fit -- as Morrissey used to have it -- a zone that it was clearly never meant to go. The cast includes the brilliant Cassandra Friend and the splendid Jeremy Legat. I am prepared to bet that Angels in the Architecture are the best company in the world to be named after a Graceland lyric -- at least, since the sad break-up last year of the unusually affluent intergenerational dance-theatre troupe A Loose Affiliation Of Millionaires And Billionaires And Baby.
I think I probably mentioned in some earlier post the Jerome Bel season at Sadlers Wells, which also begins right at the start of February. It is probably all pretty much sold out now, though I particularly hope that some kind Thompson's reader will go and see the stuff I have to miss while I'm in Plymouth with Hippo World and tell me all about it. The Sadlers Wells season is full of great things, including Tanztheater Wuppertal (also in February), and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's new piece Myth -- of which I've already seen hugely exciting online glimpses and am even now a little bit uncontainable about -- in May.
Between then and now, I'm also very much looking forward to a first sighting, at the Lyric Hammersmith in March, of Beachy Head, the new project from Analogue, who scored such a hit with Mile End in Edinburgh last year. As I said at the time, I found Mile End hugely promising but not quite there yet: however, knowing a few of the Analogicians, I don't suppose for a minute they went all light-headed over the rapturous reception of their debut -- which is one of the reasons I feel confident in having high hopes for this new piece. I'm glad it's the Lyric that's hosting them, too.
And before that, straddling February and March, there's a Ridiculusmus season at the Barbican, including a new piece, Tough Time Nice Time, and some old favourites including Yes Yes Yes, which is one of the half dozen key shows in my development as a practitioner, right up there alongside Complicite's Street of Crocodiles, Goat Island's The Sea & Poison, Theatre Mega-Pobec's Rouge, Noir et Ignorant, and Les Ballets C De La B's Rien de Rien. And, er, one other. Hmm. (Let's say Blast Theory's Stampede, for now.)
And, perhaps most interestingly of all, and certainly most significantly, is the National's staging of the (woefully belated) UK professional premiere of Peter Handke's seminal The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other -- a 1997 American student production of which is brilliantly described by its reviewer as "the kind of show you'd expect if Samuel Beckett had written Our Town": which sounds like one of those lazy and invidious "Joyce Grenfell on acid"-style comparisons but actually, from what I knew of the piece, is wonderfully astute. I don't know when it's on because right now, even though miraculously I have a wireless connection, the NT site is once again down.
All of the above are in London. There you go. Flame me. It's what an unmoderated comments box is for. Go on, I'm a parochial metropolitan shit, I dare you.
If you're anywhere else, well, why not read a book? I've been meaning to say, there's been a real glut of fantastic performance-related stuff out from Routledge in the past few months, which deserves to be celebrated and mildly promoted here. Pick of the bunch for me is Small Acts of Repair: Performance, Ecology and Goat Island, edited by Stephen Bottoms and Matthew Goulish; Goat Island, who are now embarking on their final project as an entity, are perhaps the most significant performance company to emerge from the US in the last twenty years, certainly with respect to their continual visibility in the UK, where their performance tours, residencies and summer schools have been of considerable influence on live art and experimental theatre here. As I mentioned above, their The Sea & Poison in particular was and remains of huge importance to me. The book is creatively, wittily, provokingly assembled, very much in line with their personality as a company, and it will ensure that their presence continues to reverberate long after their eventual absence starts to be felt. Highly recommended for directors and artists of all curious stripes.
Andrew Quick's Wooster Group Work Book is a beautiful, annoyingly (but necessarily) odd-sized collation of documents relating to a number of productions from the Wooster Group's history: loads of photos and images, interviews, rehearsal notes, etc., lucidly edited and strikingly unmediated. I can't think of another book quite like it, though I suppose Certain Fragments, the Forced Entertainment book, comes close in some ways. I need to give it much more expansive and alert attention before I'll be able to tell to my own satisfaction whether it's much more than a coffeetable book for rabid Woosteristas. Even if it's not, I'm glad it's around.
I need to save up my pocket money before I can treat myself to The Theatre of Societas Raffaello Sanzio, which is the first English-language survey of the work of this really important Italian company. (If you haven't heard of them, don't worry, I hadn't until last year, but they seem to be cropping up more and more in UK criticism as a paradigm of certain kinds of contemporary praxis. More than that, I had better not say, lest my ignorance cause the entire internet to collapse in on itself: but I was looking through a copy the other day, and the images are jaw-dropping; and quite apart from their obvious increasing visibility on the performance studies circuit, one of the contributing authors/editors is Nicholas Ridout of QMUL, whom I certainly trust as a guide to this kind of territory.
Finally, the twin volumes Physical Theatres: A Critical Introduction, and Physical Theatres: A Critical Reader, are worth a mention, though both are a little disappointing on first acquaintance (which is as far as I've got). Happily, these two are, of all of the above, the most likely to turn up on a bookshop shelf near you, so maybe have a browse and see what you think. I'm tempted by the Reader but there's not a lot there to excite, it's more about covering bases than arguing a toss; the Introduction is probably really for classroom use, in which capacity it may well be excellent, though I was immediately put off by its continual misquoting of the title of Goat Island's The Sea & Poison: which I suppose is not a cardinal error in itself, but, no, goshdarnit, it's glaring and unnecessary and it bothers me. Well, I am a stickler. My brain, my rules.
OK, well, I'm going to shut up now and post this lump before the connection goes again. I'll try and finish off that post that keeps defeating me and drop it in here before the week is out. In the meantime, mi casa es tu casa -- by all means hit the comment button and fire at will. I just like the company, honestly.