Anyway. Enough verbose preliminary forewarnings of concision. Let's have a quick chat about Black Watch. -- What's that you say? ...Oh, yeah, ok, sure. I'll do the talking.
So, in a jarring break with tried-and-true Thompsonian tradition, I thought I'd form my opinion about the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch after seeing it, rather than confecting a clot of speculative prejudice during an over-breezy pub conversation one evening in lieu of seeing it. And I'm very glad I did. Given that not only has it arrived in London a matter of years rather than months after its Scottish premiere -- and picked up a quite astonishing (and remarkably unanimous) amount of critical acclaim en route -- but also that this present Barbican run has already been discussed almost to death by every critic and blogger under the sun (putting only a few minor revisionist dents in its reputation), there's nothing I can say here that can possibly be helpful, but what the hey, better out than in, allegedly.
Look, it's brilliant. It really is. It's brilliantly conceived, brilliantly made, brilliantly executed. It's clever, ingenious, passionate and shrewd. Anyone with any interest in theatre should go and see it. It's fantastic.
What's that? "Shrewd"? Yes, I suppose that is a funny word to use, now you mention it...
Well, OK, so, let's see.
Ryan Fletcher and Emun Elliott in
the National Theatre of Scotland's Black Watch
It's brilliant, it really is. It's brilliant in the way that Coldplay are brilliant (or were until the slightly underrealized current album). Brilliantly secure, brilliant at nailing the right melody and the right dynamics to make you cry or jump up and down or wave your lighter or phone a friend. Brilliantly shaped to ensure that no one is lost or confused or left behind.
Do I have a problem with that? No, not necessarily. And particularly in relation to this theme, this story. I'd go so far as to say that Gregory Burke and John Tiffany had the responsibility of producing exactly that in staging the story that they wanted to present, in supporting the voices that they wanted to make room for.
And it's not as if it's deceptive for a second about how it's going to go about creating that space. Practically the first thing we're told, by the first character to speak, is that the "bullying" behaviour that we might object to seeing in this play is, of course, exactly the job that the regiment are in Iraq to do. Nor, it transpires, do we see anyone speak in support of the aims of the war, insofar as they could anyway be articulated: these soldiers are bored and disdainful -- proud of their mates and their regiment and their heritage but not of the task that is required of them, about which they are as cynical and generally disconnected as anyone back home might be.
This is actually quite like a confidence trick: a brazen, disingenuous way of disabling any dissenting relationship with the action of the play and its springy, expletive-strewn dialogue. Hate the war? Disturbed by its premises? Them too. Repelled by the casual violence and unremitting coarseness of the dialogue? Well, what did you expect? And so the play proceeds from its very earliest moments with a swaggering confidence that comes from having already faced down all of the critical objections that might be raised about it. Except of course it hasn't answered any of those questions, it's merely refused them. It's refused the complexity and the contingency of them, it's simply populated itself with a bunch of lads who will alternately charm and threaten the objections out of you. But is it the reality of life in the theatre of war that's looming over you in that unarguable way? No, not a bit. It's the play itself. The play, not the men, is the real bully. The play is committed to a kind of partiality that's both awesomely seductive and deeply, erotically in love with the violence it narrates, for all that it might feel pity for its invisible victims or shame about its institutional basis. And so Black Watch inches its way towards the kind of invocation of nobility and courage that you sort of hope it might have the balls to renounce, lubricated by the men's banter, which, brilliantly written as it is, provides the worst of the experience of the traverse staging: watching suited, sweating businessmen in the opposite seating block smiling and chuckling indulgently as the soldiers toss language and ideas around that, were they spoken over lunch by a pair of accountants at the next table in Pizza Express, would provoke consternation and offence. Not that I object at all to hearing that dialogue on any grounds -- I'm sure it's realistic, it's certainly well-composed, and even if both those things weren't true there would be residual freedom of expression tenets -- but I object to how absurdly simplistic a terrain it creates; there can be nothing more patronising than the suggestion that any group of people lie outside one's moral compass, but the play, or at least its production here, insists that in relation to the brave working-class Scottish lads it portrays (and there's no doubting there's a certain bravery in them), my moral compass is inoperative.
So it was only a few minutes in before I started recalling Howard Barker's pronouncement to the effect that the musical is the most totalitarian of artforms, and suddenly realizing what he meant. That was even before the first song: and in fact once the singing started, I found it much easier to tune into the pitch of what was happening. Black Watch is our post-9/11 Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, all this leaping and lyricism sporadically transcending an ornery, earthbound existence. The musical arrangements of traditional Scottish songs (brilliantly achieved by Davey Anderson) are both the most mawkish and the most genuinely moving aspect of the whole production. How can they be both? Well, in this way, I think. The play is as adept at charting the historical context of the regiment as it as basically uninterested in setting out the historical context of our invasion of Iraq: which is to say that the regiment's (any regiment's) dependence on a kind of highly reduced construction of its own history and symbology is exactly mimicked by the play's own fetishistic self-fashioning: and so the folksongs appeal both to an actual and formidable history, and to the political and commercial condensation of that history into more proximal and manageable forms. That they function so aptly in both lights suggests to me -- as does much else in this remarkably expert production -- that at least all of this cynicism and populist doublethink is consciously marshalled, rather than an inadvertent stigmatic expression of some unexamined articles of faith. (Again, that this should be so is essentially a pre-requisite for the play. It's not as if there aren't possible histories to be narrated and songs to be sung, every bit as moving and compelling, threaded all through the Iraqi culture that we sent these men all that way to devastate and deride. This picture is all about its frame, and there's some expert calculation that's gone on to make the dimensions of this frame exactly right.)
I didn't expect to be quite so critical of the play: the worst, the grossest of it, is probably no worse in itself than, say, Henry V -- or, for that matter, Coldplay's 'Fix You', which was one of the songs I had on repeat play while I was writing my own (unassailably pure, of course) Speed Death of the Radiant Child. But the point there is that none of the other tracks I had on repeat play were Coldplay, or anything like Coldplay: they were horrid blasts by Alec Empire and Prolapse and the like -- after which, the directness and clarity of Coldplay suddenly becomes profoundly upsetting and disorienting (in a good way) -- or at least, that's how I find it. Likewise, the (very mildly) controversial sequence in Black Watch in which the men receive letters from home and 'read' them silently using loops of sign language at once deeply private and transparently legible was, I thought, an exquisitely judged and desperately moving sequence that was sadly unable to deliver the lasting emotional impact it deserved to because it arose out of a theatrical language -- and, for that matter, an ideological language -- that made everything too simple, too assured and too emblematic. The actors -- and especially the astonishing Emun Elliott as Fraz -- fully deserved the standing ovation that much of the audience gave them: but for me it said it all that, the night I was there, first to his feet in the opposite audience block was Neil Kinnock; it would have been exactly a propos had he reprised, as it almost appeared he might, his still-haunting refrain from Sheffield 1992: "We're all right! We're all right!"
Essentially I suppose what I'm saying is, Black Watch does exactly what it has to do, brilliantly and bullyingly. But it needs some irritating bugger like me following it around wherever it goes, pulling up outside theatres in an old Mr Whippy van, and performing a little one-man agit prop thing about why suicide bombers have the right idea. I doubt it would be terrifically popular, but it would be complicating: and the complicated detail that Black Watch sacrifices in order to be terrifically popular could certainly use a little marginal excavation, to say the least.
All right, so I've already blown the brevity thing, we knew that would happen. Let's see if I really can whip through some other stuff that's worth making a fuss of.
Cy Twombly: Cycles and Seasons at Tate Modern is, simply, the best exhibition of modern painting I've ever seen. There are some quite incredible things here, and unlike many survey shows spanning such a long trajectory in an artist's work (from the very early 50s right up to 2005), there is absolutely no period where you feel anything other than excitement at Twombly's intrepid and affectionate sensibility. (The only downside is that the canvases are so thrilling and so full of argument, the sculptures with which they share some of their accommodation feel pretty dwarfed.) Of particular interest as something to trace through the movement of the work is the bubbling under and bleeding through of language: of improvised texts forming out of chaos, or poems hanging like spineless apparitions in his airspace; of ocean waves becoming jotted memos, and grief whispering itself in illegible, syntaxless sentences of unravelled wool; of sudden blurted bulletins and celebrity autographs ("APOLLO") and romantic bar-talk, such as the scrawling of Mallarmé's matchless pick-up line: "I have known the NAKEDNESS of my scattered Dreams"... The delicacy and restraint and nervousness in Twombly's demeanour make way for sporadic passages of lurid sensuality, such as the yucky pinks of the Ferragosto series, a dispatch from languid, overheated 60s Rome rendered in what the little room guide sweetly calls "an orgy of impasto clods". It's the two pivotal versions of Treatise on the Veil (1968 and 1970) that clinch the show for me, opening up within it a kind of endlessly reverberant, self-reflecting remoteness, viewed through which Twombly's later tendency towards prettiness (and a slightly self-conscious turn towards Turner at the start of the 80s) seems rightful in the privileges it claims. Ah, this stuff, it's difficult to write about without recourse to the sort of coagulated mistranslations that nobody wants to read. I absolutely implore you to go and see the show before it ends on September 14th and is replaced by a blockbuster Rothko show for which I fear I'm possibly going to have not much appetite.
(Oh, in passing: to the small, ageing man, in preposterous Hawaiian shirt and red sneakers, whose deep booming voice uttering grievous inanities and inaccuracies followed me around the whole show yesterday, may I quickly say two things? Firstly, the alphabet in which the word 'ΟΡΦΕΥΣ' is lettered on the sculpture called Orpheus (Du Unendichle Spur) is really very much more likely to be Greek than Cyrillic, don't you think?, I mean even if you're guessing -- which, by the way, would be something to try to do rather more sotto voce, no? Secondly, I would advise giving up at your earliest convenience on the whole wildly cliched notion that the considerably younger woman you were trying to get to hang on your every pronouncement is ever going to let you fuck her. Honestly, she isn't. She's pretty stupid, but she's not that stupid. Sorry about that. I just don't want you to get hurt, innit.)
After a long spell of hankering I've managed to get to the cinema three times in the past fortnight or so, exceptionally happily in each case. I loved Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, a fantastic (in both senses) poetic documentary about his hometown: as rich and strange as anything this wondrous director has made, perhaps almost too rich -- no, no, I hate people who say things like that; it's dazzlingly, exhaustingly full of image and invention, and I'll look forward to seeing it again when I next have the chance, as I knew I was missing a lot of it, most of it even. I wonder if there's a sense it which it's a movie that's made for DVD? Perhaps some film-makers now proceed from the assumption that their films will be seen, if at all, then more than once by many viewers?
Speaking of which, the two really exciting films from recent days were both revisits -- though neither is on DVD (yet): Charles Atlas's Hail the New Puritan, his exceptionally beautiful and vivacious video document of the work and the life and times of the dancer/choreographer Michael Clark in the middle of the 80s, with his star in its first and most convincing ascendancy; and Bruce Weber's Chop Suey, a sort of scrapbook film in which Weber's reflections on the development of his working relationship with a young model named Peter Johnson intertwine with other threads including an interview with the surviving partner of the jaw-dropping lesbian cabaret singer Frances Faye (get her Caught in the Act album if you possibly can, it's a giddy treat from end to end) and some ravishing archive footage of the unique, magnificent, indomitable Diana Vreeland.
Chop Suey, dir. Bruce Weber (2001).
Peter Johnson, centre
In plenty of ways these two movies are very different from each other, aesthetically and in the milieux they record -- they may overlap somewhat in their interest in fashion, but Weber's groovy recollection of the young Naomi Campbell occupies what feels like a whole different planet from Atlas's immersion in the clubcentric world of Leigh Bowery and Bodymap; in general, much of Hail the New Puritan is soundtracked by The Fall while Weber's film sounds like jazz and looks like one of his (admittedly ravishing) Pet Shop Boys videos, and those twain probably ain't meeting any time soon. But I'm totally in love with the modus operandi of both of these films, which is to use a kind of young and seriously beautiful muse figure -- Johnson, Clark -- as a sort of portal into a whole array of reflections and speculations about the wider cultures that they inhabit or will inherit. Each of the movies has its own glamour from which I feel, I suppose, equally remote: the experience of watching Chop Suey is of surfing woozily around an all-gay-all-the-time YouTube while half-listening to a sort of American NPR version of Woman's Hour for rich fags; while Hail the New Puritan spills and rampages ecstatically over the streets of a London that, though it's still only twenty years past, I never knew and which feels as remote and unrecoverable as the 1930s on the moon. (Poignant to see those few shreds and patches that survive, though; a young Grayson Perry turns up a couple of times, not in a frock, and an impossibly suave and ironed-looking Mark E. Smith, and the wonderful Sue Tilley who popped up in the news a few weeks ago when Lucien Freud's portrait of her fetched a record sum at auction; also, one sweetly suggestive conceit of the film is that Clark and fellow dancer Gaby Agis live in a loft apartment that is, in reality, the main studio at Chisenhale Dance Space -- one of the less deserving victims of the recent ACE shakedown. So near and yet so far, as Fred Astaire reminds us -- though, looking at New Puritan, I swear you'd name Clark the greater dancer...) But what militates so successfully against that remoteness is the way that both filmmakers continually fold themselves and the makings of their work into the mix of the films you see. Again, the grammars are very different -- Atlas's disjunctive formalism versus Weber's languid rhizomatry [that's a word, right?] -- but the impulse towards a kind of diaristic self-inscription in the midst of the work is common to both of them. I realize as I'm writing that actually the place where they overlap is Derek Jarman, and that what's common to all these artists -- and I'm thinking about this with my next making project, Hey Mathew, uppermost in my mind and most tantalising in my daydreams -- is that what they do when they go to work is play; and that what makes them as filmmakers so close to my heart is that their generous, excursive, celebratory boundarilessness is so theatrical. I mean, way more than almost all theatre.
L to R: Elvis Presley, Gaby Agis (sleeping), Michael Clark, Mao Zedong
If I've made you want to seek out either of these films: well, Hail the New Puritan was just at the BFI for the Big Dance festival, and has gone again, and if you want to buy a copy on DVD it's going to cost you $500 so I'd just keep an eye on the usual listings magazines and maybe you'll get lucky one day... Chop Suey meanwhile has finished its limited run at the Curzon Soho but it's showing in a double-bill with Weber's best-known work, Let's Get Lost, his marvellous film about the great jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, at the Phoenix in East Finchley a week on Sunday -- and, I think, in the same double-bill at the Curzon sometime in August; and then in September it's released on DVD for the first time, both as a standalone and also as an essential-looking Weber box set which includes Let's Get Lost and also his rapturous first feature, Broken Noses, an immensely touching and profound film which I think literally everyone I've ever shown it to has found kind of boring and a bit creepy.
Anyway, for now, here are:
The trailer for Chop Suey...
...and the opening sequence from Hail the New Puritan
Meanwhile, for those three dozen or so Thompson's readers who are prepared occasionally to engage with artworks that -- begging Mr Weber's pardon -- don't necessarily feature lolling shirtless teenage boys, may I very enthusiastically recommend a display that can be seen until August 17th in room 74 (via staircase G -- a yomp in itself, but not impossible) at the lovely V&A. (Why aren't I down there all the time? -- I don't mean as an exhibit, I mean they have such a lot of cool stuff, above and beyond what follows.) Certain Trees: The Constructed Book, Poem and Object 1964-2008, curated by Simon Cutts (co-director of the exemplary Coracle Press of Tipperary), brings together a truly inspiring collation of books and related artworks in which the material qualities of poetry and the language life of visual ideas arc towards each other with understated wit and airy bonhomie. Little handmade booklets, cards, signs, collages, documentary pictures, and oddments which in other contexts one would vaguely call conceptual artworks, all meet in a defiantly unassertive celebration of the pleasures and (dare one say) virtues of handcrafting as a species of imaginative thought.
The one presence here that I suppose most people will have some familiarity with is the great Ian Hamilton Finlay: but he's first among equals in an array of tender and wonderfully ingenious makers. I was really pleased to see a substantial display of work by Thomas A. Clark and Laurie Clark, whose works have been of real importance to me (those with which I've been able to make an acquaintance): but also to meet work by artists who had only really been names to me before now: for example, I enjoyed finding out about the productions of Brian Lane, whose quite various stuff presents echoes and refractions of Pop and Fluxus; the exquisitely judged visual poetry artefacts of Cutts's close associate Colin Sackett; and the more recent work of David Bellingham, suffused with an almost eerily quiet humour.
Moschatel Press, a selection of booklets (1974-81)
from Certain Trees
There is of course something odd almost always about seeing books, perhaps especially poetry books, behind glass; and it's additionally curious to see these necessarily, more or less avowedly, fugitive works gathered together and sitting rather still. I'm very glad of the excellent catalogue, which provides an opportunity to get much closer to the detail of some of these pieces, and to spend the time with them that they can use; there are useful appendices too, and a marvellous essay, 'How to Read (2)', by Harry Gilonis, which, characteristically of its author, nudges the ingenuous reader towards a close encounter with these works in a tone of such solicitous calm that the radicalism of what is being said and described arrives almost undetected, like a friend slipping in through the back door. All this work, in fact, has that quality; I can't sum it up any better than Tom Lubbock does in an appreciative Independent review: "...[T]hese works are a model of carefulness. As they lay outprinted marks on a page, you're conscious of the aligning, centring and spacing of words and letters. You see judgement at work, tact, the imperative to get it right, make it true. The achievement is not only exquisite, it's a kind of ethical behaviour." Very highly, very warmly, recommended to everyone within, let's say, a milion miles of SW7.
Finally in this little train of reviews, a word for another really intelligent, beautifully executed work, whose engagement with the basic armature of our ethical responsibilities is much more foregrounded, perhaps, than the poets and artists of Certain Trees, but no less subtly attuned. This is the latest, and presumably, last version of thedead's Apollo / Dionysus, which I caught during its brief stopover at South Hill Park in Bracknell last night, en route to Edinburgh via further previews in Wellingborough, no less, if you happen to be thereabouts at the right time.
photo: Bruce Liron
I wrote appreciatively, though by no means uncritically, about this piece after I saw it on the fringe last year. Since then, it's gained some new material, but also been edited back to (I think) much the same running time as before, and been tweaked and reshaped and partly recast, and it seems to me now a really very fine piece indeed. My earlier experience of it was of an extremely brave work that promised much but was not quite able to follow through as it allowed its throughlines to become indistinct and its working space congested. These problems have been brilliantly addressed, it seems to me, and though some of it will still perhaps strike some viewers as a little portentous -- the programme (not un-proudly) quotes Chris Wilkinson's assessment of the first version in 2006: "it's just po-faced nonsense" -- and not all of it works, or at least, I found not all of it to my taste. But the acting this time out is uniformly excellent, the now sustained clarity of the piece allows it to generate a stronger emotional base to which its intellectual adventures can attach, and the depth of thought and sincerity and the scale of ambition and commitment that inform the work are genuinely impressive. Can it possibly find the audience it deserves in Edinburgh, not least given its past-midnight start time, when its challenging mixtures of slowness, silence, philosophical dialogue and (in every sense) nakedness -- and its ninety minute runtime -- seem to make the whole enterprise look steeper on both sides? Well, good luck to them, what else can one say. If nothing else, this work includes the most cogent use of nudity that I've ever seen in theatre, which makes it, or should make it, of crucial importance to performance makers of all progressive stripes.
On the other hand, it's kind of rainy at the moment, right? So you'll be wanting to stay in, mostly, and watch Top Gear on Dave. (Note to non-UK readers: Dave is a tv channel here now; please don't imagine that Tory leader David "Call me Dave" Cameron is attempting to ingratiate himself further with the people by hiring himself out to families who fancy using his transcendentally idiotic face as a projection screen.)
Well, so, all I'm saying is, you might like to check out the updated blogroll which you'll find to your right (unless you're standing behind your computer and craning your head ridiculously over the top of the screen in order to read this -- in which case, stop it). Some new gems in there. Or: go and play Pascal Ayerbe's toy piano; or be among the last to discover Where the hell is Matt?, if you haven't already; or harness the benign power of randomness to confect your debut album; or snort despite yourself at the unnecessary censorship of Sesame Street and the peculiarly atavistic pleasure of viewing any webpage of your liking through a blizzard of plummeting membra viriles; or set your phasers to agog and watch naughty Remi Gaillard (a French, not-unfunny Dom Joly) cause a very low level of traffic chaos while the worst rock and roll band of all time drone on in the background and spoil it for everybody. (Or, I guess, turn your volume down.) -- Oh, and for those who have now gone four minutes without a shirtless teen, prepare to lose your heart to Bryce. Oh, Bryce.
And if none of that appeals then my last gift to you in this post is, ah, the gift of music. (No, horrid curs, you can't just have the money instead.) At long last I've refreshed the content of the Gevorts Box audio stream that you can choose to listen to, should you so wish, while you're spending quality time with your favourite Controlling Thompson. ("There's a sweet, overgrown schoolboy quality to Goode that reminds you of a more sincere, less buffoonish Boris Johnson." -- Claire Allfree in the Metro. Thanks Claire, I owe you one.)
The previous Gevorts Box sequence was, o Lordy how time flies, the Easter edition. And now, we've careered past Whitsun, Shavuot and the offical 22nd birthday of Lindsay Lohan, and we're bringing ourselves right up to date with the Gevorts Box Bumper Summer Special. Yes, it's a double edition, and in honour of how pleasantly sunny it was for a couple of hours about five days ago, it's specially targeted towards all things aestival. Dozens of researchers working around the clock have scoured the annals of recorded music to bring you this exciting feature. By which I mean, I typed "summer" and "sun" and "holiday" into iTunes and marvelled at the quite extraordinary amount of bad pop music I have on my music drive.
...Almost all of which, you'll be pleased to hear, has been filtered out in favour of some choice tunes for turning up to 11 as you roar down the freeway in your little deuce coupe. A slightly less wilfully eclectic and/or rebarbative selection than usual, because I don't want anyone dropping their Mivvi and indelibly marking their trousers. But you'll hear bits of the very (and in some cases, very very) good new albums by Tricky, Alva Noto, Vijay Iyer and the tremulously lovely David Turpin; David Kitt covering Ivor Cutler and some guy impersonating Kermit the Frog covering Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails (and there's a daisychain you don't see every day); some neat stuff retrieved from indie storage, by the likes of Half Japanese, Olivia Tremor Control and the Ass Ponys; a rare bit of Oscar Peterson singing, and a pretty frightening bit of the awesome Tetuzi Akiyama singing also and in multiplicate; all this plus the theme tune from the BBC Holiday programme c.1980 vintage (the credit sequence of which made an irrecuperable impression on those of us who hadn't figured out yet that when we grew up it really wasn't going to be all about the boobies for us), and Arnold Schwarzenegger issuing alarming instructions to participants in his Total Body Workout to the practically inevitable backing of the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men". And several further hundredweight of bric-a-brac. Feast your ears, dears, and away you go.
(Full track listing is immediately below, almost as if anybody actually cares.)
And finally, here's fair warning that yet another instalment here at Thompsons is already on the simmer plate: in the next couple of days I'll be posting that promised interview with my pal the live artist Rajni Shah -- and, go careful, it's another mammoth one.
As ever, I thank you for your company and, in advance, for whatever comments you might like to share. Until we meet again, a fond sayonara.