Monday, September 15, 2008

Almost like being in Hove

No, no, really, don't get up, it's only me. Just checking in briefly because from Thursday I'll be on the sliproad to Hey Mathew, work for which starts in earnest next Monday, and from then on I doubt I'll be here much, through to the end of October. Apart from anything else, as I mentioned in my last-but-one post, Hey Mathew has its own little triptych of blogs, which will together constitute one of the collaboratory engines of the process, so if there's any time at all to spend blogging, it's likely to be there, on the whole, rather than here. So, apologies in advance for the tumbleweed.

I hoped to be sitting here this evening with a completed first draft of King Pelican but I am, to say the least, some way off. The last few days have veered unpredictedly off course, hijacked not least by a sudden (and infinitely overdue) urge to springclean this place. I don't mean the blog, I mean the actual room where I actually sit and type this stuff. I was moaning here a few days ago about what a shameful state my living quarters had fallen in to; well, after, literally, years of such dismal and unsanitary existence, out of the deep as it were has arisen the gumption, the intrepidity and the brainless stamina necessary to make a serious dent in the ghastliness. I've never sat through an episode of Time Team (Tony Robinson having peaked, as far as I'm concerned, way back in Fat Tulip's Garden), but I suspect it delivers a broadly similar series of thrills and terrors. Things whose prevalence within these four walls I'd have seriously underestimated until this week's eyepopping excavations: socks; minidiscs; chewing gum; pennies; mugs; phono-to-jack adaptors; fountain pen cartridges; precocious earwigs: "and many, many more", as Kid Jensen used to say. Will this exercise lead to increased clarity of thought? I wonder. For the moment I'm boggling Coleridgianly at the expanse of carpet in here. Who knew?

But wait! Let us spare a thought for those less fortunate than ourselves. Special consolatory brownie-points this week for Andrew Motion, who seems a bit down in the dumps. First he's opening his heart to Hello! -- oh, no, wait, sorry, the haughty denizens of the Ealing Arts Festival -- about how as a consequence of his appointment as Laureate in 1999 he "dried up completely about five years ago". Hm. He never seemed exactly a-gush to me: in fact it's hard to think of a poet more likely to put you in mind of a Jacob's Cream Cracker. But let's not kick the fellow when he's, if not down exactly (after all, doesn't he still receive a stipend of 75 quid and an annual butt of sack or something?), then evidently putting the Andy Motion into "tired and emotional". For one thing, I once pinned a radio mic to him, back in the day when I was Deputy Chief Radio Mic Pinner at St Paul's in Covent Garden: meaning that I know him more intimately than I do, say, Lord St John of Fawsley, or Iggy Pop.

But more importantly, this week -- and perhaps this might be the silver lining to his cloud of despond -- he's dollied up a great teaching aid for me. As one of a number of luminaries (such as Tim Piggott-Smith and Meat Loaf) approached by the Guardian to express fellow-feeling in the matter of comedian Lee Hurst's recent great ecstasy of cellphone-inspired pique, Andrew "Timon" Motion has this to say:

Public readings are floating worlds - there's a strange disparity between what you're saying and how it's understood, because people come with their own preconceptions and prejudices. I've not experienced rage, but have felt puzzlement bordering on dismay and disappointment at discovering that several of the things I have said have been massively misunderstood. You must grow another layer of skin, or become accepting.

This is I think the best explanation I've ever found of the principle on which I founded my company (or label or whatever you want to call it) Signal to Noise. That gap, that "strange disparity", is exactly the zone where an audience and an artist or group of artists together produce the usable substance of a work. Information travels towards the audience; some of that signal breaks up into noise; noise is simply a proliferation of entry- and exit-points for the encounter between the two sets of makers involved in the piece. What's puzzling about Motion's description (though of course he speaks, as do most officially sanctioned artists, out of the norm-hole, so one can hardly berate him in particular for it) is that he's obviously talking regretfully about a predicament that he finds far from congenial -- "you must grow another layer of skin, or become accepting" (in other words, it's a stark choice between ornery ego or addled catamitism -- it's all right, I've tried both so I'm allowed to be facetious about it), which one might conceivably understand if it weren't for the blaringly obvious fact that poetry, more than almost any art form other than theatre, and especially in relation to the milksop's Brigadoon of "public readings", has an incredibly low signal-to-noise ratio. In fact that incredibly low signal-to-noise ratio is basically what poetry is. It's language under a kind of public stress that yields illimitable multiplicity, riddled with entry and exit wounds into which the doubtful reader is invited to poke her finger. For Motion -- at this late and presumably exalted stage of his career -- to bemoan the infidelities with which his chosen practice is seethingly fraught is just plain bewildering. It's like hearing a Premier League footballer contemplating retiring from the game because the other guys on the team keep kicking something at him and it seems a bit dangerous and impolite. I mean why would you choose poetry as your medium and not, like, factsheets? Actually, the best thing I ever read of Motion's was an autobiographical novel, The Pale Companion, which is not at all bad: so maybe that's the ticket. -- But anyway: o! Mr Motion, thanks a million for a paragraph that's going to be on every beginning-of-term handout I ever distribute for the rest of my natural life.

Right, well, while I'm being hoity-toitily baffled by the grown-ups, I'd better just mention Lipsynch, the Robert Lepage epic currently showing at the Barbican. This starts unfairly for Lepage, perhaps, but: When I was asked by an arts magazine last year to name my 'Heroes & Villains' for a regular column, I decided to confine myself to a sole theatrical hero, and settled, without too much brooding, on Lepage: his has been the body of work that's most inspired my own practice over the past fifteen years, since I saw the early underdeveloped (but still, in several passages, numinously beautiful) Seven Streams of the River Ota in Edinburgh in 1994 -- and, in fact, even before then, having read about The Dragon's Trilogy in The Drama Review and seen odd BBC Late Show clips of Tectonic Plates and Needles and Opium. I've never seen a Lepage show that I thought was perfect in the way that The Street of Crocodiles (or, for that matter, The Sea and Poison) was perfect, though The Far Side of the Moon came pretty close in many ways. But in everything he did, even ill-received pieces like the muddled Geometry of Miracles or the hubristic Elsinore, was something ineffable, in which the adventurous and border-crossing exertions of his intellectual curiosity repeatedly found rapturous, and often giddyingly simple, emotional expression, through the basic tenets of theatre -- through the body, through light, through signals that delight in their own susceptibility to noise. His love of language -- above and beyond any one language or any single encounter between languages -- and his deep understanding of the technologies of metaphor that particularly distinguish theatre and poetry have made him important to me like almost no other artist.

So, yes, perhaps that's an impossible estimation for him and his work. Even so, and with nothing but the best will, I think Lipsynch is terrible. It's as if it's made not by Lepage himself but by some K-Tel cover artist who's read a bullet-point list of Lepage's signature stylings and utterly misunderstood them all. It's banal, clunky, cheap, tired and quite often boring: and I've never thought any of those things about any of his work before. Even among the least approving notices elsewhere you will see references to wonderful scenes or moments, and I suppose there are, in the first and eighth of the nine sections especially. (After the first hour I was still pretty hopeful; by the time section eight came around, I was at least glad I hadn't left during one of the earlier intervals, though it was touch-and-go a couple of times.) But, honestly, almost everything about it feels ersatz, from the jarring use of documentary recordings -- about which Mark Fisher quite rightly raises a concern -- to the trademark use of incidental circularities, none of which, on this occasion, deepen or broaden our experience of the narrative, the characters or the aesthetic.

I'm not going to say any more, it's depressing to write about and will only elicit equally depressing responses (on both sides). But the best summary I can find for what's happened here is this: that Lepage's talent has always been to make the stage world open out so that it feels as if it has no boundaries, that it can contain multitudes; here, he takes a multitudinous real world and shrinks it to a sequence of inert precis. The energy of the work, for the first time (that I've seen), is not expansive but reductive -- which, across nine hours, is clearly trouble. Perhaps the most obvious indication is his characteristic use of coincidences to make connections between disparate characters or storylines. Here, we don't care enough about the characters or their journeys, and the coincidences are not in themselves resonant (because the symbology is so underdeveloped), nor are they 'magical' -- I'm not going to try and unpack that in this post, that needs a post of its own -- because, actually, what else could happen? What else would you expect, but that the right character gets on the right tube train at the right moment, or that another is told that he resembles the father he's never traced by someone who just happens to have worked with both of them? Everything about this piece, from its dependence on the already second-hand emotional weight of Gorecki to its hijacking of documentary recordings to the excruciating low farce of its antepenultimate section (I literally had my head in my hands by the end of it) to its running time to its glut of thunking coincidence points, is unearned. That's lethal. You just haven't earned it yet, baby.

What I did feel, in waves, all day -- at first quite pleasantly, and by the end sort of desperately and quite sadly -- was that my generation of devisor/makers must now start working on a more ambitious scale. It's difficult to know what comes first, the lack of resourcing and support or a deficit of aspiration; and anyway of course Shunt and Punchdrunk have made confident work on a large scale. But even they, I think, on the whole (with the exception perhaps of Dance Bear Dance) have not quite been able to clinch -- pardon my Billing-tone -- the necessary, truly impactful consonance of form, aesthetic, content and scale -- have perhaps not sought it -- and for whatever (infinitely legitimate and devilishly complicated and inwoven) reasons, company-devised British work post-Complicite has continued to feel marginal in the culture even at its most ambitious and out-turned. I'm not sure I can think of anything that's got closer than Filter's Water, which was still a smallish show in a biggish space. (I'm the wrong person to ask, I don't see enough -- can anyone tell me what I'm omitting from this account?) I suppose Black Watch has pushed some of the pertinent buttons, or perhaps some people thought Dissocia did. I dunno. I do want to be clear that this is not a downcast grumpy-old-men chunter going on here, but kind of a gee'd-up yawp of excitement that something here or hereabouts is precisely ready to come of age, coupled with a pissed-off yelp at what feels, more often than not, like a practically inescapable glass ceiling. I don't know if I'm the right person to do this work anyhow -- I mean, I thought Speed Death of the Radiant Child was a good stab, but the people that that piece spoke to most powerfully were, on the whole, yknow, students and other theatre-makers and basically a load of people who don't have any more money or power than I do to make things happen with. So, what do I know, etc.

It would be better, probably, if I didn't continually, day after day, shoot myself in the foot. And then in the face. And then in the foot again, twice.

Which reminds me, I woke up pretty late this morning and deeply disturbed (and exhausted) by a dream in which I kicked Nicholas Lyndhurst to death. This sounds made-up or like the preamble to a joke, but it's not. I kicked Nicholas Lyndhurst to death, and it took ages. Unfortunately, not being a joke, there's no punchline to that. I think I'm still angry because I ordered a bookcase from Argos last week and they delivered a duvet. Er... This isn't a very good note on which to leave the premises for a little while, is it.

Well, so. Let's see. Some things you should do while I'm gone. Go see Helium. Listen to Chad VanGaalen. Go to the Bob Cobbing tribute night at the Klinker -- the October listings aren't up at the web site yet so I can't remember exactly when, though it's at the Kings Cross branch so it'll be the first or third Monday of the month. Pre-order the Bruce Weber DVD box set. Learn to speak Vout. Skip the Rothko, you have my permission, life's too interesting. Sit in a lighthouse and wait till autumn. Get the new Artforum, there are some great pieces on Michael Clark and a fantastic cover shot. Oh and can somebody go and see Pineapple Express and tell me whether it's worth my time? I'm quite tempted, though stoner comedy is not exactly my home-from-home -- mostly I just can't quite believe that David Gordon Green would direct anything not worth seeing.

Actually I'm re-reading Peter Hall's Diaries which is perhaps whence the grandiose emesis above arises. I picked it up to see what he had to say about Ken Campbell's Illuminatus opening the Cottesloe, and I'm still thumbing through it two days later. Incidentally, somebody's linked to my Thompson's piece on Ken C. from bloody Wikipedia. Astounding. I liked this blog better when nobody knew it was there, like the still-undiscovered fourth bog-bound biddy that it in so many other ways also resembles.

Anyway. Gosh. Past my bedtime again. How does this happen? I'm blaming you. You just don't know when to stop. ...But I like you, all the same. You're nice.

*bites lower lip and wrinkles nose like Emile Charles in The Fruit Machine*

'Night, then.


tomkendall said...

hey chris what are the other blog addresses again? I want to be able to link to them.
A most entertaining post as well

Chris Wilkinson said...

Hi Chris - avoid Pineapple Express like the plague. I thought it was terrible - and I am one of those rare people who actually really liked Superbad. PE is lazy, boring, unfunny and crass...

Chris said...

Chris -- thanks for the advice, but, ah, that's an unfortunate choice of phrase, seeing as how the plague is one of my all-time Top 10 Diseases... xx

simon kane said...

One of the great things I thought about Far Side of the Moon, or actually one of the things Jeremy Hardingham said ages ago that he thought was great and with which I then agreed, was that it could have been performed in an attic in the Pleasance. Which is nonsense. It couldn't, obviously. But I think a version of everything that I loved about it could. So I'm interested /curious why you think the creation of large scale works is so crucial. Perhaps everything you've expressed enthusiasm for in this blog is sort of your argument. But I'm not sure - I'm not sure there's the obvious connection between the scope of one's curiosity and the size of one's project that - if I've got this right and I probably haven't - you're intimating there is. For example, as I may have written here already, I was really struck on my second visit to "You've got to love dancing to stick to it" by how much less happened in the show than I'd remembered, struck but in no way disappointed. The epic I had remembered seeing was something my brain must have been staging in tandem as a sort of instinctive compliment, a mental toe-tapping. It was, as you said, my reward for paying attention - a reward only made possible by the architecture of Julian Fox's show. (Mental toe-tapping, yeah... To my mind that's a bit more like an audience's ideal experience of an artwork than the chinese-whispers connotations of the phrase "signal to noise" - You're not REALLY deciphering a message when you watch something good are you? You're providing a descant. You're accompanying it. You're dancing.) In other words I think theatrical epics are perfectly possible in small spaces over the course of an hour within which very little goes on. But I may well be completely misinterpreting your motives for block capping "MUST". Perhaps it's a much more practical argument you're making. Well I'd be very interested to know what it is anyway if I missed it. Yeah... All nice. ywzodjzy

Mervyn said...

Of course small epics are possible - and successful. But isn't the giveaway what Chris says about the audience for Speed Death? When I went round Faust lots of the corridors were clogged with sometimes amiable, sometimes struggling fiftysomethings in suits and nice skirts - an NT audience transplanted. I'm not sure that it spoke for a generation in anything other than a formal sense (and those shows are fun like a theme park as much as resonant like a theatre experience). So obviously you _could_ put your best work in a hard-to-find 100-seater basement in Thurrock. But stepping up to the plate and inviting 600 people a night to enjoy and tangle with your abstruse modern styling - and succeeding - does have merit in terms of making a cultural impact.
I imagine Chris is asked to do this more often than some of us on account of his laudability. And he'll never become Alan Bennett if he doesn't.

simon said...

That's a good point. I hadn't thought of that.
My only "but" would be if the size of your "cultural impact" is going to be a consideration, how can you possibly measure it? Isn't it actually the scene that has the cultural impact rather than any individual work of genius within it? If everyone's making small scale work but the audience for theatre itself is, as a result, growing (I have no idea whether this is happening or not, but let's say) then what's still playing in the 600 seaters needn't be important, need it? I don't know.