Saturday, May 24, 2008

"Where are you going? This work has not yet reached cessation."

Gordon's alive!

...I don't mean Gordon Brown, obviously, for whom the phrase 'dead man walking' could easily have been coined -- or, perhaps not walking but smiling: that weird Malvolio rictus that his advisors idiotically trained him into a while back, and which gives him the ineffable air of a man at a royal garden party who doesn't want the Queen to know that a bee's just crawled inside his bell-end.

No, I just thought I'd don my Brian Blessed sock-puppet to announce ventriloquially my return to the fray: not a little frayed myself, admittedly, and not feeling overmuch like the hero for whom Bonnie Tyler is (presumably) still holding out, but happy to be re-addressing myself to the world of Thompsonian movement, after our own little Northern Rock meltdown back there.

Before I attempt to account for myself, I had better note that what follows will strike the sensitive reader as dismayingly parochial, and that even the dust-bunny petting zoo beneath my bed, where I have mostly been racking myself with self-pitying gurgles since my last post, was penetrated by the ghastly news of natural disaster (and grievous manmade exacerbation) in Myanmar and in Sichuan Province, and, more locally and (I hope) less calamitously, of the wretched betrayal that London chose to visit upon itself earlier in the month. Pretty bleak stuff, all in all, and an odd time for me to, y'know, cheer up. Though of course there was the dazzlingly bright note of the celebrations for the 60th birthday of Israel: another great British invention -- no, no, please don't thank us, we'll only get embarrassed.

Anyway. In all this time, I've little to report, I fear. I was sad and gloomy and despondent for a while, and then awfully busy and awfully tired, and then I got sick -- we're talking a curious portmanteau man-flu (OK, yup, let's call it portmanflu and be done with it) which, with a forcefulness bordering on the caddish, confined me to bed for most of the last bank holiday weekend, and whose grisly final throes are still making me feel slightly below par. (A phrase I suddenly don't understand: surely 'below par' is a good thing? For golfers, anyway...?) And then as I started to pull myself together, my computer got sick and was, for the best part of a fortnight, almost unusable. Righting it has been an unbelievably time-consuming process, which still isn't complete, but the present degree of illness (in my laptop as in myself) does seem to be liveable-withable. The moral of the story is, never click on a banner ad if you don't know where it's going to take you, even if it appears to have Charlie Brown on it. I ended up with a hard-to-identify trojan called Vundo, now dispatched, and a still-present rootkit which even Blacklight and such have been unable to cleanse. (I can however, if you ever find yourself troubled by spyware nastinesses, thoroughly recommend Malwarebytes' Anti-Malware.)

So, that -- plus a fair bit of Suffering for my Art -- more on that in a bit -- has added up to a binbagful of spanners in the proverbial works. I expect my readership may have dwindled to pre-2007 levels during the hiatus, for which I have only myself to blame. By 'myself', obviously, I mean God. And Boris.

Before I report back from the happier frontiers of theatre, I had better, rather reluctantly, say a little something further to my previous intimations regarding the unravelling of a significant project. I'm immensely sorry and unhappy to say that that prediction -- which, at the time I wrote it, even I thought was a bit of self-indulgent pessimism -- turned out to be accurate. If you've been following my mentions here (and at Dennis's blog) over the past year of the development of a project called An Apparently Closed Room, then I regret to say it's come to a crashing halt. I really don't want to say very much about this turn of events, partly because it feels inappropriate to do so in this place, and partly because it still feels very raw and very distressing to think or talk about. The basic facts are that my collaborator and I came to a point where what had seemed like slight and resolvable differences of opinion and emphasis about the scope of the project suddenly became unmanageable and irreconcilable, indicating I guess a much deeper and more profound set of dissonances between our respective perspectives and expectations. I had hoped and expected that at least we would be able to find some middle ground on which to keep talking and agreeing to explore, but that too turned out to be impossible.

I should say straight away that a similar project, under a different name, and with a different ambit (and obviously a different creative team), will still take place -- the commitments to Theatre-in-the-Mill in Bradford, and Artsadmin here in London, are already in place, and it would be quite wrong not to honour those; I'm also feeling pretty optimistic, to be honest, about the prospects for a reframed and refreshed inquiry. So it's not all despair. But to lose the original project, and the body of work that had been developed towards it -- not just over the last year but since the early R&D phase in the summer of 2005 -- is the most awful blow I think I've experienced as a maker, as well as one of the most daunting losses I've had to deal on a personal level. The inquiry that my collaborator and I were engaged in on the AACR project is, without any exaggeration, the most important work I've done in thinking through the questions that are most significant for me in my practice -- or, to put it another way, it was the best work I've done. But what made the articulation of those questions possible was the depth of the working relationship that I've had with that one artistic collaborator, who is, in my experience, a uniquely gifted performer, for whose courageous and sympathetic outlook I have had boundless reason to be grateful over the past few years. The longevity and the deep feeling of that relationship simply feels unmatchable, and this excruciating termination of our experimental work together diminishes me as an artist, and reduces the compass of what I feel I can dare to believe is possible. But now I find myself tangling with the other problem that arises in discussing the situation: my sense of it sounds, I know, hyperbolic, hysterical even. So I'll shut up and move on -- a strategy that, after all, has got me through worse times than this.

I've had the good fortune, at any rate, in the four weeks since that very bad news, to be incredibly busy (as well as ill and asleep, to varying degrees). ...SISTERS, my New Directions project for The Gate Theatre and Headlong, has been in rehearsal -- until today, in an otherworldly residence in Queensway occupied by various organizations concerned with the promotion of (what else?) Latvia. After the jump we'll be working in situ at the Gate, in preparation for opening a week on Thursday.

Those who recognize even some of the names listed in my previous post will know that, yet again, I have the unbelievable good fortune to be in a room with some extraordinary actors; we have laughed a lot, as I hoped we might, and some rare and very beautiful things have happened: and, following our first run of the whole piece this afternoon, I am more encouraged than ever to believe that the project is going to bear fruit in ways that both exactly match and wonderfully and uncontrollably exceed my original aspirations for it. But, for the record, it has been -- though I don't suppose my physical state has helped much -- an incredibly draining and mind-mangling process too. For those who don't know, I should very briefly explain that we've taken Chekhov's Three Sisters (in a new but not re-fangled version I wrote last month), dismantled it, and created from it a sort of cross between a slightly wonky reconstruction, a dance piece, an installation, and -- above all, I guess -- a game, in which the actors are encouraged repeatedly to recombine passages and fragments from the text, playing whichever character they choose at whatever moment. Practically everything is quite strictly framed by constraints and parameters, but will nevertheless be almost entirely improvised afresh in each performance: an exchange between, say, Masha and Vershinin might be played by two actors one evening, by five actors the next night (multiple Mashas, perhaps) in an entirely different way, and maybe on the third night not crop up at all.

It is, by some way, the most fiendishly complex project I've ever been involved in -- and immensely, and one might almost say unfairly, demanding on the actors, who have to memorize massive amounts of the text, and be able to navigate it sort of hypertextually, whileretaining a deep -- and very necessary -- fidelity to the emotional currents of the piece. This is not the arch ludicity of a Wooster Group reconstruction, or some callow vandalising of a classic text on behalf of a militant tendency of play-wrecking theatre artists. Jane Edwardes from Time Out, who came to interview me yesterday, pulled me up pretty sharp on this notion of 'fidelity' -- how could such a provisional approach produce a faithful rendition? But, whatever Chekhov's suppoed "intentions" for Three Sisters may have been in 1900, it comes down to us as a text for theatre: a category whose meaning and orientation inevitably shifts with the changing social and aesthetic position of theatre: and the matter of fidelity is therefore a matter first of all of engaging with, and yielding (carefully and inquisitively) to, what theatre now is. For me, the critical question is liveness, and what we mean by this notion of being "live" -- a notion, as I'm sure I've said here before, that is as frequently invoked in support of the vulnerable practice of theatre by those who cling most assiduously to its near-historical conventions as to those who wish to throw everything up in the air. This is what fidelity to a theatre text means; fidelity to a literary text (for example, O, I dunno, Three Sisters by Chekhov, maybe) is something else again, about which I don't intend in the course of my theatrical work to care for a second.

Though Jane was perfectly courteous and asked some interesting questions, and though we have had nothing but support and encouragement from both the Gate and Headlong -- the persons associated with both of which continue to rise and rise in my estimation, it seems to me that the reception of ...SISTERS may well be cool, or even hostile, or merely baffled: even among those parties who might be expected to be most supportive. It simply proceeds from the most alien assumptions: one of which is that it is better to be interesting than to be sure. Though I think the actors will continue to get more and more skilful and sophisticated in their playing of the game, I imagine quite a bit of almost all of the performances will not, or will not quite, "work". It will produce moments of surprising beauty and clarity, but also stretches of confusion and lostness, for players and audience alike. Is it asking a lot for greater, or richer, value to be placed on the creating of such uncertain and sometimes annoying conditions, for the unanticipated loveliness that will from time to time arise out of those conditions and then immediately be gone and unrepeatable, than on the crafting of an utterly predictable version of an often-seen play? Possibly. At sixteen quid a pop, in fact, almost certainly. It's a question that we've asked ourselves, mostly in the poignant form: Why can't we just do a straight Three Sisters? Well, perhaps one night we will. In the meantime, I continue to remind myself that, if the worst we do is frustrate our audience, their frustration will not be worse -- or any longer lasting -- than the frustration that many of us feel on being confronted with productions whose every guiding motive has been to shut down every effect of liveness, in favour of a vague simulation, a 'magic' that we sort of proverbially learn inheres in theatre, but almost never sense for ourselves.

Having said all of which, please come and see the show -- at least once! (I'm hoping one or two folks will succumb to the urge to visit twice or more, to test our assertions of nightly uniqueness...) The way it's already coming together physically in the Gate, and the literal inability of all six of these actors to make a boring or crass decision, suggest that anyone with attention to give and a heart and a brain that are even rudimentarily connected will find something to enjoy and appreciate. It has been, as I say, an exhausting process, simply because we are all, in every hour of every day, constantly and tacitly repositioning ourselves right on the edge of the darkness shaded within which lurks everything we don't know how to do yet. If it weren't for the exceptionally bright and fearsomely switched-on Wendy Hubbard, who officially is assistant director on the project but actually, at the very least, its co-director, I think I would have had a terminal nosebleed long ago. To be surrounded by these people all through the working week is an indescribable privilege; I wish I could up my game a bit, to meet them where they are, at the speed and sensitivity of their own ongoing discoveries -- but on the whole, the pedal's to the metal here and there ain't much happening. Hopefully in the upcoming couple of weeks, the adrenalin going one way will meet the caffeine going the other way, and I'll manage to be the director I dream of being when I write these sodding applications to do such brain-burstingly complex and ambitious stuff. Time will tell; or perhaps you will.

One pretty nice consequence of emerging from these recent emotional doldrums has been the reopening of my capacity to feel inspired by things. The Tate Modern Duchamp / Man Ray / Picabia has lingered, though I don't think I'm going to be able to get back to it before it closes on Sunday, which is a pity: the Picabia stuff in particular was a constant revelation. Since then, a big highlight was Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's Myth, which came in to Sadler's Wells for two nights last week. I've written here before of my real love for (much of) Cherkaoui's work -- though one of the dismaying things about the accompanying programme for Myth was the resumé which made apparent how much stuff he's made that I haven't had the chance to see. Myth appears to have underwhelmed reliable friends and unreliable critics alike, but I found it perhaps his most enthralling and most richly conceived and perfectly crafted piece to date. Some elements of his aesthetic language may be more familiar now, but in most respects I continue to find those elements -- and in particular his fixation on the point where the individual meets the group, and the private meets (and sometimes swaps places with) the civic -- almost unbearably exciting. I was extremely agog for two hours straight: and I can think of hardly any other maker who would be likely to elicit such a reaction from me. I'm supposed to be reviewing Myth for Total Theatre, so when I've ordered my thoughts a bit more, I'll say so. In the meantime, please accept my general bowled-overness in lieu of a more lavishly articulated description.

More recently, this Wednesday I found myself in Manchester for the first UK presentation of Jerk, the latest piece by director Gisele Vienne and (it's that man again) Dennis Cooper, whose Kindertotenlieder at NottDance last year was one of the most striking dance-theatre works I've seen in recent times. Jerk is on an altogether smaller scale -- it was shown at the little, down-at-heel but irresistibly funky Islington Mill in Salford, more usually home to such visiting musical luminaries as Simon Joyner, Alexander Robotnick, and -- tomorrow night -- the Television Personalities. It's a solo piece for one performer -- the fathomlessly charismatic Jonathan Capdevielle, who has worked repeatedly with Vienne over the past several years, and who was performing Jerk in English for the first time.

The central character portrayed by Capdevielle, or with whom he is associated in the piece, is a real figure, David Brooks, who is currently -- and, it's fair to say, for the foreseeable future -- serving a prison sentence for murder. Cooper's Brooks tells his story through a kind of reduced re-enaction using puppets -- this being a skill which Brooks has acquired during his incarceration. As with so much of Cooper's work -- and this is brilliantly realised by Vienne and faultlessly achieved by Capdevielle -- the laughter reflex is ruthlessly unzipped into its components of fear, embarrassment, distress and desire, meaning that the early humour -- dark and uneasy but not expensive -- quickly deliquesces, and the rest of the short piece's dance down the knife-edge of what we can bear to laugh at, and what we can stand to confront, is as slippery and confounding as the violated bodies we are asked to encounter. Within this artistic territory (and who knows what other realworld spaces that abut its perimeter), the instability of identity, and the desolate but inescapably compelling eroticism of that fantastic passivity that allows -- or even requires -- any identity to be projected onto the surfaces of the remote 'other', insists finally and insatiably that the unknowability, the unfixability, of the body -- as a kind of factual effigy of the individual personality that it (barely) contains -- is both the unrelenting motor of desire and the terrible tragedy at its furthest reach. ...Or, if you prefer: there's a lot of puppets fistfucking each other and the sound effects are pretty funny, and then there's a lot of stabbing and the sound effects aren't so funny after that.

The performance by Jonathan Capdevielle is simply astonishing, in that it manages to yoke two normally incompatible registers: virtuosity (he brilliantly handles several puppets and voices all of them; later, an extended passage of ventriloquised dialogue is pulled off with incredible flair and a genuinely unheimlich chill), and intimacy -- his rapport with the audience is so ingenuously produced and so deftly managed as to become basically irresistible. And so we are pulled into his orbit, into proximity with this profoundly lost and frightened soul: and in the ecstatic derangement of his ventriloquism, we know in an instant and quite candidly that we too contain many different voices, and cannot reliably distinguish those that are us from those that are not. In that respect, though Dennis jokingly apologised on his blog a few days ago for the lack of nudity in this show as compared with Kindertotenlieder, the nakedness of Jerk is fine and fraught and awesomely freighted; only the interpolation of a couple of printed texts, which we are asked to read at two points in the performance, lets us briefly off the hook of our sense of collectivity. In that light, the post-show Q&A that I had been invited to host (following a brilliant short reading by Cooper from his recent The Weaklings and upcoming Ugly Man) felt basically superfluous, though it was a terrific personal pleasure for me not only to pick up the face-to-face conversation with Dennis, but also to meet Gisele and Jonathan and to have the opportunity to draw a little closer in my encounter with their crucial and joyously intrepid work.

Another somewhat theatrical experience that I'm glad to have caught up with was a new production, for Radio 4, of Harold Pinter's Landscape, with Pinter himself and Penelope Wilton as the two weirdly connected, oddly detached characters Duff and Beth. Landscape, a shortish play from 1967, was the first piece of Pinter's that I really unstintingly loved, as a teenager (I had read The Caretaker and seen the then-recent Mountain Language, and at the time was interested but not wholly satisfied by either of them): I came to it through the near-legendary 1968 radio version with Eric Porter and Peggy Ashcroft in the two roles, and found it almost unbearably beautiful and disarming. This new production feels slightly too rushed -- if I remember that earlier version correctly, it ran almost ten minutes longer -- and I'm very much afraid that without any additional visual stimulus I find it hard to hear Penelope Wilton's voice without thinking of Richard Briers talking in a monotonous voice about valves; but if you don't know Landscape, or even if you do but you missed out on hearing this new version, I would recommend giving it a listen: which I am pleased to be able to facilitate (at least until someone pops up to tell me not to) by offering a download in mp3 format, here. It still strikes me as the apotheosis of Pinter's lived craft -- his humanity, his unsparingness, his unerring gifts for cadence and patterning, and his marvellous determination not to fill in the blanks that reverberate all around and within his most resounding works.

If all of this weren't enough, over the next few days I'll be cramming in visits to Goat Island's The Lastmaker at BAC, Philip Ridley's new play Piranha Heights at Soho, and as part of Sprint at CPT, Aegean Fatigue, the new piece in development from Petra's Pulse, the consistently intriguing performance partnership between Selina Papoutseli and Jamie Wood, which most recently gave rise to the estimable Donkey Shadow, though I find at this distance that it's their previous, rather underrated and underseen, piece Drinking the Dawn, with its ravishingly lovely stagings of distance, serenity and sensual knowledge, that most thrives in my memory. I'll try to report back on all of these, in due course. (Better let me get ...SISTERS open first, probably.)

Another, rather unexpected, source of inspiration in the past couple of weeks has been in re-engaging with two of the artistic figures who loomed largest in my sense of my practice perhaps a decade ago, but with whom I guess a kind of overfamiliarity or staleness set in: namely, Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson. With the latter, I just happened to find a source for downloading her defining work, the four CDs of United States Live; listening to it again, the downside -- that she sounds exactly like Laurie Anderson, which can hardly be held against her but which obviously almost always in my experience signals others imitating or parodying her -- has its corollary upside: nobody does Laurie Anderson better than she does, and particularly in the ambition and the still-evident innovativeness of United States Live, there is such a lot to enjoy and admire.

As for Eno, the rapprochement came about because I was casting around for additional external stimulus for the almost infinite decision-making processes within ...SISTERS, and thought it might be a job (as indeed it turned out to be) for his Oblique Strategies. Tracking those down put me back in touch with his invaluable A Year With Swollen Appendices, which turns out to have insinuated itself into my thinking to an almost embarrassing and certainly unacknowledged degree: on almost every page is a thought, a sentence, a paragraph, that has obviously lived in my head for the last ten years or more, gradually becoming something that I was under the impression I had thought for myself. This in turn has re-fired my love for Eno's early solo music, and the pretty grim rush-hour commute to and from west London has been both enlivened and soothed by Taking Tiger Mountain and Before and After Science. There is, I think, a problem with Eno -- his intensely pragmatic outlook, his distaste for ideology, which sometimes leaves him floating in a capsule buoyed by his own ingenuity but unable to relate the span of his practices to the larger pressures of politics, economics and (especially) the undertows of industry. But the kind of wilful exertion with which he pursues ideas -- and inversions of those ideas -- is ultimately really kind of charming and, even now, can from time to time produce work of considerable value and undeniable originality.

The reanimated crush on Eno in turn had me tracking down Noatikl, the generative music software which has superseded Koan, beloved of the mid-90s Eno of Swollen Appendices. As yet, though, I can't get it to work -- or, it seems to be working, but I can't hear anything, and I don't have a lot of time to get to grips with it just now. A quicker fix has come through the reminder, from Tom (one-sixth of the pool of SISTERS), of the existence of Boomkat as a source for interesting new music that's neither as annoying and mainstream as iTunes, nor as patchy as some of the other (variably legal) mp3 outlets, nor as random as Usenet, nor as inscrutable as Rapidshare. I like Boomkat and, while I'm actually doing a paid gig, it doesn't hurt me to cough up some proper cash for interesting music. Current favourites: Samamidon, Helios, Need More Sources, Tape (as ever), and, especially, Arc Lab. -- What are yours?

And one last inspirational pointer: the extraordinary blog of an extraordinary fellow, my online pal and fellow member of the Coopintern, Slatted Light. He is smarter than a metric ton of foxes and has a more unerring eye for the beauty and the erotic charge of precisely detailed exploratory thinking than, I guess, anyone I know. He is in Sydney, which is both a drag and a sort of beacon. And it's probably good for him, that it stops me from actually following him around tugging his sleeve and asking him to say things again.

With this much work left to do, nothing, however sad and fucked-up it feels, can possibly actually be the end of the world, can it?

Thank you, people of Thompson's, for bearing with me while I lost my already nonlinear plot. I am once again open for business. Come and play. Everything's AOK.

And, as Kierkegaard reminds us, always finish on a song... I warn you, it's a tear-jerker.

Love, always, from the Controlling T.

p.s. Joe Luna -- if you read this -- I know I owe you mail beyond measure. This weekend, I hope...


DavidEhrenstein said...

Back in the 60's there was a fmous Actor's Studio production of The Three Sisters that ran on Broadway for a "limited engagement." Lee Strasberg decided that in a dinner scene the actors should actually eat so he asked them what they wanted and tyhe great Kim Stanley said "Chili! Good Ol' Texas Chili!"

tomkendall said...

hey man glad to hear you're feeling better and WOOOAAAAAAHHHHH you're busy. I want to come see Sisters when its on. Let us know yeah?

Andrew Haydon said...

Having just seen I Apologize in Rakvere, I now read your review of Jerk in a whole new light. It's very different when you've actually *felt* one of Vienne's shows. Now going to seek out your write-up of Kinder...