Sunday, July 20, 2008

"Reason enough for hope": a conversation with Rajni Shah

Bride in Parking Garage
Image by Rajni Shah, Manuel Vason and Lucille Acevedo-Jones

The first show never even happened, I remember that: though I don’t quite remember what it was called. Well, hang on, I'm pretty sure it was either called Twenty Minutes in Love or Get Out Of The Car, and all through the summer of 1998 it was all I could think about. I was living in a box room in Brixton, my third not-altogether-fixed abode since moving to London just a few months previously; and it was coming up on a year since I’d made any theatre, and this show was coming together in my head, and though I had no idea how we’d pay for it or where we’d do it, I had started casting it — in my head, but also for real. I auditioned actors in my kitchen, or in pubs, or, in one instance, on a platform at Kings Cross station. There would be seven performers: and although I found all seven in the end, I can only remember two or three of them now, and a couple of faces (and haircuts) that have become detached in my memory from the names they came with. One of the ones I remember was this dance performer from Cambridge called Rajni Shah. Radiant, enigmatic, weird, slightly scary, totally compelling Rajni, whom I vaguely knew, and wanted to know better, and wondered if I could ever actually know at all.

Eventually I had to write to all those actors and pull the plug on a project that I guess had never really existed: though it genuinely seemed at moments that maybe London could be made to behave like university did: that you could get a show on with just five hundred quid and an obsessive personality. And although in the end it took a fair bit more money than that, the show did eventually happen the following year, though by then it was called The Consolations: and Rajni was one of the six extraordinary actors who came together to make the piece with me. Look, here they all are.



Rajni atop Jeremy Hardingham...


...orbiting Stefan Warhaftig...


...waving hello...
L to R: Gemma Brockis, RS, Stefan Warhaftig, Tom Lyall, Theron U. Schmidt


...singing 'Que reste-t'il de nos amours?' on board a spaceship...


...and in the best possible company.
L to R: Stefan, Jeremy, Tom, Theron, Rajni and Gemma
The Consolations, dir. CG, at The Place, London, November 1999
all photographs [C] Sarah V. York


We made a couple more pieces together, Rajni and I, in subsequent years: a large mostly-improvised ensemble piece called The Big Room, which I suppose we had better chalk up as an interesting failure; and, in the spring of 2003, a really interesting, angry, unsettled, curiously rhapsodic piece called Past the Line, Between the Land, for which we covered the floor of Camden People’s Theatre with fresh turf and made ourselves a campfire under artificial stars. I still count that piece as one of the best and most important that I’ve made, though folks were largely mystified and slightly repelled by it — not necessarily excluding some of the actors, perhaps.

This backstory is simply because I was wondering how to try and introduce Rajni -- who she is, what she’s like to be around, for those who may not know her -- and I found myself wanting to tell a story about something that happened while we were making Past the Line...: just a small thing, but it speaks in the right way.

Down in the drab and claustrophobic basement of CPT, where the piece was being made, we spent one afternoon running an extended improvisation of the kind that I particularly love to initiate: complex, confusing, sometimes fluid, sometimes jittery... I don’t remember what the rules were, or what stimulus fed into it. I know that it was mostly about wanting to take hours to let something grow, whatever that might be.

In the midst of all this field of activity, there came a point where Rajni had been standing very still for quite some time, more or less unnoticed perhaps by the others, who were busy making their moves and crafting their interventions. And then slowly, so slowly as to seem almost to defy perception, she started to undress. And the moment that I’m trying to describe, I suddenly realise I’ll never be able to capture, but the facts of it were these: that one of the other actors in the room had started to hand round a packet of biscuits. (A gesture that later found its way into the very beginning of the show.) And he turned to offer one to Rajni, and she gently declined, and what I can’t describe is the exact moment, somewhere between the words “Would you like...” and “...a biscuit Rajni?”, when that actor suddenly realized that she was standing there naked. Just the tiniest catch in his voice, the slightest retrieval of his extrovert energy, a tenth of a second of the finest, sweetest, most generous and gentlemanly panic.

That moment, that feeling in that fleeting moment of utter disorientation, is exactly what it’s like to know Rajni, as an artist and (somewhat) as a person — though the first thing we should get rid of is that distinction. Disorientation is, I think, exactly the right word: without the slightest aggression or egotism, Rajni has this incredible talent to disorientate. I’ve been thinking of her a lot in the last few days as, in preparation for my upcoming piece Hey Mathew, I'm re-reading Sara Ahmed’s brilliant Queer Phenomenology, which considers the ways in which sexual and racial ‘orientations’ are constructed, and how disorientation helps us reimagine ourselves in relation to the vectors of straightness and the assumed default centrality of whiteness — and, for that matter, the fixity of the table I’m typing at. Ahmed’s conclusion seems to me a wonderful encapsulation of what Rajni’s practice as a live artist — and, if we can allow this formulation, as a life artist — is, to some extent, about:

"The point," she says, "is not whether we experience disorientation (for we will, and we do), but how such experiences can impact on the orientation of bodies and spaces, which is after all about how the things are 'directed' and how they are shaped by the lines they follow. The point is what we do with such moments of disorientation, as well as what such moments can do — whether they can offer us the hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope."

As it happens, Rajni is not an obvious posterchild for a queer artistic programme: she’s been exceedingly, and quite bravely, scruplous in refusing a simple politics of racial or ethnic identity; and as for her sexual orientation, well, I’ve never asked her to fill in a Kinsey-style questionnaire, but I can report that she’s been married for almost six years to the critic and performer Theron Schmidt. One of the things that makes Rajni’s radicalism so effective (and so seductive) is that it never writes itself large; it does not reject — indeed has plenty of room for — the modest, the domestic, the gentle; it never comes dressed up in the posture of militancy. Indeed, one of the things I’m most inspired by in her work is — as we discuss below — that it quite often comes undressed. In fact, out of all my closest friends, she’s (sadly) the only one to be pictured nude in a book on my shelves — documentation of her participation in Ex-Centris, an event created for the Live Culture series at Tate Modern in 2003 by, among others, Guillermo Gomez-Pena, who has become a crucially important figure in Rajni’s own self-orientation as a maker.

Way before our last work together in 2003, Rajni was already on a trajectory that would end up taking her away from the territories of theatre and dance, and towards a far less monolithic and more fluidly various practice as a live artist (in numerous formats), craftsperson, activist and curator, and two dozen other things for which we don’t yet have the words. Much of her work is now so fugitive — in official terms at least; I’ll bet there’s nothing marginal or transient to the impression it makes on those who encounter her interventions on the streets and in the unlikeliest of spaces — that one is immensely grateful for the assiduousness with which she documents her work, particularly at her excellent web site.

Our meeting for this interview, however, on April 4th this year, came shortly after the only London date so far (in a smallish studio at QMUL) for her current major project, Dinner With America: the second perfomance work in a trilogy that began with the acclaimed and widely-seen Mr Quiver. To describe Dinner With America in the detail it requires would be impossible (especially since I lost my notebook), and to precis it or limn its features seems insensitive to say the least: but for the little it’s worth...

We enter a room with a sort of maze mapped out on it in lines of mulch, and pick our way through and across these lines to take a position in relation to a hard-to-read form in the corner. This turns out to be a kind of cocoon or body-bag (these purposefully multiple readings are promoted throughout), from which Rajni emerges, looking, frankly, weird: like a cross between dead Marilyn, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, The Statue of Liberty and the Lady in the Radiator, or any one of a number of Lynchian muses, in a blonde wig and falsies.

Cycling through poses (from the heroic to the possibly pornographic) and presentational variants, this all-American — indeed, too American — icon starts to hum, and then to sing, Amazing Grace. Layered under, or over, all of this is a collage of real American voices, candidly discussing their feelings about their homeland and their present government, in a gradually accumulating sea of layered reflections.

For an hour, and then a second hour, this slow, exhausting scenario continues to reach itself iteratively onwards and outwards. It’s possible for spectators to leave and return — which I do, exiting for some respite at a point where some aspects of the work have started to get on my nerves one way or another, though many others choose to stay with it throughout. As I rejoin the room, a giant stars-and-stripes flag is being created on the floor using fluorescent tubes. From there on in, the ordering escapes me; recalling the piece exactly at this distance is like trying to recover a dream: but somehow, these things happen. Rajni slowly undresses, peeling off her wig (a peculiar shock), her false eyelashes and fake breasts, her Dolly Parton boots, until she is naked. A song, specially contributed by the Mountain Goats, is played on a tape deck that she holds. She withdraws; the fluorescent tubes are gathered in the centre (or somewhat off-centre) of the room, in a form that seems to resemble the land mass of United States. Film (an element arising in the piece through the collaboration of the brilliant Lucy Cash) is being projected onto the white tubes, with intertitles announcing “The feast is coming”, “It’s almost here”. The mulch, too, has been swept into an America-shaped pile, and is transferred onto the tube screen, clods of dirt being thrown down as though at a funeral. Finally, onto the heap of earth, plates of fruit and chocolate are placed, interspersed with little cards that bear simple questions — the same questions, presumably, that the interviewees on the soundtrack were being asked, about country, about home. Rajni has been back among us for some time, helping to carry the earth from pile to pile, casually dressed, and just one of us, no more, no less. And there we all are, guests at the feast, with our talking points, and a conversation unfolding, and the piece either finished or still ongoing, and if still ongoing then, then finishing when?

About the best thing I can say about Rajni’s work is that it doesn’t ever begin and it doesn’t ever end. And though my confused and pedestrian rendering of the content of the piece can barely begin to suggest the nature of the experience, I can attest to a whole swirl of emotional reactions within me that, I realize as I write, I can attest have also not yet ended.



give what you can, take what you need


What follows is a long post, excerpted from an even longer conversation: and even that didn’t — couldn’t — begin to touch on many of the projects and questions and issues that it might have located within the compass of Rajni’s concerns. Reading it back, and posting it now, I feel a bunch of things. I’m inspired by the adventurousness of Rajni’s practice and by its basic goodness: her smallscale interventions in particular, which don’t get the attention they deserve in this post (she’s since been doing a wonderful-sounding project in Fribourg), seem to be an astonishingly precise and exacting counterpart to the notion of “random acts of kindness” that everyone finds so attractive and no one ever gets round to achieving. I’m a little sad that she can’t find a home, and the support she needs, in theatre: I quite understand what she’s saying, but we could use her intelligence and honesty over here, that’s for sure. I wonder a little, and even fret, about the larger performance pieces at the centre of which she places herself: I guess I feel that her reluctance to make authorial statements except in relation to the connotative geographies of her own body can sometimes make these works so hospitable to generalizing or undiscriminating reception as to be nearly evasive. But finally I love her composure, her wit, her willingness to be direct (occasionally bordering on fierce), her willingness to be sweet sometimes, her willingness sometimes to not know, to not even voice the question, to just be where she is. I’m immensely fond of her handwriting and I could happily look at her with nothing on for hours. (Her, I mean, not me.)

And I like very much that she’s my friend, and I particularly like that, when I say that, I’m talking not least about what she does when she goes to work.

Anyway, it all started, as these things always do, with me not being able to work my voice recorder.


RS: Just make sure it’s not on hold. That’s the main thing.

CG: Looks fine.

RS: Yeah.

CG: It’s going round.

RS: ...No, it’s really not.

CG: [laughs]

RS: If it was going round, that would be great. But it would probably make the recording sound really weird.

CG: I suppose. ...I wonder where the actual mic is.

RS: There.

CG: Oh it’s there, yes. So it’s good that it’s pointing towards you.

RS: Yes.

CG: Because you’re a quiet-spoken person. ...Wow, you’ve done this before. A lot.

RS: A lot.

CG: Yeah.

RS: In America.

CG: Yeah. [laughs] Well, that’s a good route in.

RS: [laughs]

CG: At what point in the process did all the vox pops come?

RS: Woah, woah, woah, you just said vox pops.

CG: I... Yeah. Um. OK. Not vox pops?

RS: I don’t know what that means.

CG: Those interviews. The interviews you did for Dinner With America.


Dinner With America
(in-progress showing, Coastal Currents, Hastings, 2007)
Image: Manuel Vason


RS: What time did they come...?

CG: Were they part of the conception from the start?

RS: ...You might find it a bit frustrating, the way I answer these questions, but...

CG: Because there’s no such thing as “the conception”?

RS: Well, I’m not sure. I mean, I know that, for me, really a lot of what the show was coming from was having lived in Georgia.

CG: Yeah.

RS: And having met some amazing people. And then just thinking about it for quite a long time, about this idea of what the word ‘America’ means: what it means here and what it means there. So it always was a little bit about that, you know, that conversation, between people there and people here. So I suspect it was in there quite early on. But in actuality, I don’t know. Probably quite near the beginning of the actual rehearsal process, because I knew I going to go over there in the summer, and that was always part of it, that I would do these interviews, and then see how we wanted to use them. So we didn’t know how it would work.

CG: Right.

RS: But one thing that I was really clear about was that if I was making a show about the idea of America, I couldn’t speak live in it. So there had to be something... else.

CG: Right. Yeah. You couldn’t speak live in it because...?

RS: I’m not an actress.

CG: And you would have felt obliged to put an accent on or something...

RS: Yeah, I don’t know. It just never felt like... I suppose in Mr Quiver I speak — like, I embody versions of me, in a way. And I can do that: whereas in this show I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t really imagine a way in. It just... would have been weird. It would have then been like... I suppose it’s that instead of embodying something, I would have been commenting on something, and that wasn’t what I wanted, so...

CG: Yeah, that’s really interesting. That’s something I wanted to ask you about, actually, because that’s something that — not in exactly those terms, but in something like those terms — was one of the things that I found I was frustrated by: and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way, I just mean I think that’s part of what the piece is doing: but I’m interested in that choice. That it’s about a desire to embody and to encapsulate and not to comment and not to analyse particularly, and perhaps not to argue. Um... At the point immediately before I had my little break — where I went and had some water and some air for a few minutes — partly because it’s just a really intense piece — obviously, I mean for you too, not least!, but I think at that moment — I just began to feel a kind of ...grumpiness about being asked to sit with the problems of that embodiment and that encapsulation without...

RS: ...me telling you...

CG: Yes. I mean I think for me the way that the piece then changes in its last stages really brilliantly helped me with that. So that’s part of what you’re doing, is about holding me in that problem, that set of problems?

RS: Yeah, and it’s interesting on a practical level as well, in that I think when you saw the piece, that was kind of the end of its making process: but really until this stage we’ve never been able to look at the piece and make decisions about things like...

With Mr Quiver, that’s a four-hour piece. Some people stay for four hours, but many people don’t: and people can just come for a part of it, and that’s fine, and even though there is definitely a progression it’s also made as a piece that you can come in and out of if you want. And this piece was always designed in a similar way, and yet it has a linear progression, which makes it very different, so that’s... It’s not something I’ve completely figured out yet. I was having a conversation with Lois [Keidan] the other day about that, and she was saying: I think it’s really important that you don’t tell people they can come whenever... It’s important that people don’t show up late, for example, because there is a real progression to the piece, and I think that’s really important. And I was saying, yes, maybe in the way that I advertise it I shouldn’t say you can come any time: but actually it’s really important to me that when people are viewing the work, they’re viewing it with the knowledge that they can leave at any point, and come back.

CG: Yeah, I can see that.

RS: One of the films on the DVD that Lucy [Cash] is making is called ‘Uncertain Landmarks’, and there’s kind of a thing for me where it’s like I’m coming from somewhere to the piece, and I’m making the piece and I’m using certain things and I’m drawing on certain instincts that reference a whole number of things — partly because I’m referencing those things, but also partly just because they just do.

CG: ...That’s what happens...

RS: Because anything does, because of that attention in the space. But then the other thing that’s happening is that the audience are coming and they’re bringing all of their reference points and pinning them onto the piece in different ways — so it’s kind of really complicated in that way, I think, in terms of trajectories.

CG: Mm. Yeah.

RS: But wait! Was that anything to do with what you were talking about?

CG: Sort of, yeah.

RS: So I suppose what I was saying to Lois the other day was that I think even if you choose to stay there for the whole piece you feel very differently if you know you can leave. It’s not like going to see a show where you go and you sit down and then you stay and then you leave. That’s not what I’m looking for from an audience.

CG: Yeah. Yeah.

RS: So actually your choice to leave at a certain point and come back is completely valid and I love that; and somebody else’s choice not to do that is also valid. I need for both of those things, or many of those things, to be present. I think that’s really important.

CG: It sounds like it’s a piece that’s quite different in different spaces and different environments, and, you know, with different audiences...

RS: Yeah. Well, the other thing was that when it’s in a proper space you can actually stand back from the piece as well. Which is very different.

CG: Yeah. And also there would be a thing about being able to move around more easily.

RS: Yeah.

CG: I mean that was something that kind of surprised me, was how actually quite quickly, at the performance I saw, you know, it felt like... — I even, at one point, I moved in a sort of, you know, demonstrative way, quite an exemplary way, to just go, I think this is ok if we do this...

RS: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting because it’s very different in a bigger space, I think. ...I’m saying that not actually having done it yet! — I mean we have done it in a bigger space but not in its final version. It was really interesting, I think, at Queen Mary, because that space is kind of half the size of the minimum space that we need to do the show.

CG: Wow. I didn’t realise it was that big a difference.

RS: It’s just designed to have at least a little bit of space around it. And we did it slightly smaller than we usually would. So I always knew that it was kind of like doing a show where you were asking people to come on to the stage.

CG: Yeah.

RS: So that was very particular. Which, you know, I loved in its own way. And I think there was kind of an awareness of that, in that you were very close, and if you moved then you were definitely affecting the space in a way that I think you can do a little bit more discreetly in a bigger space.

But that preview was really interesting for a number of reasons. Because of that; but also because a lot of the people knew each other, and a lot of the people were from a particular scene. And that made a lot of things quite different, I think. Including the feast, which I would say was... totally fine, but probably worked least well...

CG: That’s interesting.

RS: ...in that that was the one time when it didn’t feel like this burst of energy, because I think people knew each other already and there was just this awareness of hierarchy which is kind of working against what that moment’s about.

CG: Sure, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, for me, the movement towards the feast — and I guess, you know, kind of knowing in advance that that was part of the shape of the piece — is really the clincher, it’s the moment where I’m... happy. [laughs] I suppose that’s what it’s for.

RS: Yeah...

CG: ...Partly. But in terms of a kind of alleviation of all of the anxieties I have about spectacle and embodiment in the way that you’re interested in. That movement through those closing stages I thought was really beautiful and again, as you say, I can imagine it being more powerful when those questions really are about making connections with people that you don’t know —

RS: Yeah. And people who don’t know me, as well. I think that made a big difference. Everybody there in some way knew me, and that made it very different. In the past when we’ve done it — and I’m really pleased about this because I didn’t know if it would work — there has been a real sense of... suddenly I’m just one of the people at the feast. And there might be a few people I’ll go and say hello to at the end, but actually it’s just that.

In Chichester, when we did it as a work in progress, it was a different show, but we set up the feast and in the darkness I had gone round and handed each person a note that said: We will be sitting at the feast waiting for you. And then we sat at the feast, and the lights came up, and — this was the first time we’d done the feast, so we didn’t really know if anybody would do it — and... Well, Lucy described it as a flock of birds. It was the most beautiful thing. Everybody just came over, sat down and all started talking — there’s some beautiful footage of it actually. There was this lovely feeling of, suddenly, this release: but also this real respect and a kind of ...equality I suppose, and a kind of opening of the space. And that is the one place where it’s been a big enough space. And that was also really interesting because I think people were very much outside of it and then they came in and that was totally fine, it was just suddenly like, oh, ok, we’re in a room.

CG: Yeah. Um... OK. I’ve got two questions in my head and I don’t know which to ask first.

RS: You could ask both.

CG: I wonder... [laughs] ...Um, I was just thinking about that thing about enacting the sense of the removal of division. Because it’s something that happens in a piece that I didn’t see...

RS: ...No idea.

CG: With the headphones. Er...

RS: Oh, one of my pieces?

CG: Yeah yeah yeah.

RS: As If Traveling Through Snow.

CG: That’s the one.

RS: Yes.

CG: And the sense of a divided group...

RS: Mm-hmm.

CG: A divided room. And the kind of immersion in the performative space of listening to headphones, and then those cues are taken out of the equation... I don’t know, I mean I didn’t see that piece — have I got the right kind of impression of it?

RS: Yes, you have, but what’s interesting about that is I think it’s really very different, actually.

In that piece we literally re-enact this coming-together of the space, in that the space is divided by clear sheeting, so you can see the whole space, but the audience is divided, the space is divided, the performers are divided, and they’re wearing headphones at the beginning. And then the audience are told to take their headphones off and then the sheeting comes down and we end it dancing together and it’s all very lovely. But what I think is interesting — and obviously I didn’t see the piece, because I was performing in it, but I think what’s interesting to me thinking about that piece — is that I think it’s a very problematic moment when you take your headphones off. Because actually there’s something amazing about being in your own experience of something. And then to take your headphones off and have to be with people but watching something — that’s really problematic in a really interesting way. But that’s very different. And then although in that piece we come together, the two performers, the audience doesn’t actually physically come together. So it’s kind of like a different stage in the process of examining that... But I always think that’s really interesting because one of the things I love about being at the theatre is not that you’re with other people. It’s that thing of somehow being with other people but being completely on your own.

CG: Yeah.

RS: And I hate applause because it’s just like this horrible...

CG: [laughs]

RS: ...fake balm that’s suddenly going, oh, here we all are, and we can just pretend that, you know, nothing’s happened. And it really bothers me because I’m like, no, I’ve just had this very personal experience, and I don’t want to just cut it off, but you all seem to want to. ...Anyway, that’s a little aside. But I think that show was interesting because in theory it was doing one thing but actually in practice I think it was doing something a lot more problematic. And you know, that show was quite a feelgood show, so it does in theory move towards this togetherness and happiness...

CG: ...but it doesn’t help people negotiate their way into that togetherness.

RS: No. Whereas with this show, I think it’s a very different thing, and as you say, the space is really held and it’s quite difficult for a long time. And that gets more and more intense and comes together more and more and then there’s this kind of release. Somehow that works. It’s like you suddenly... untie the string, or something. And it actually, I think genuinely, feels like a space where people come together.

But I think for me, having the conversation-starters is really important because what I don’t want to happen in that moment is for everybody to have to start talking about the show, about whether they liked the show. That would be hideous.

CG: Yeah. But that’s quite hard, that manoeuvre. Partly because of the... stillness, in a way... I wonder if I can express this at all. Um... I had an interesting moment of thinking about how concerned you are, how engaged you are, with things that are slippery and unstable and not fixed, and wanting to at least pressurize and in some ways I guess refuse the idea of stable categories and stable positions in a relationship and whatever. And yet the recent work of yours that I’ve seen and read about, the one kind of fixed point in it, very often, is you.

RS: Yeah.

CG: And there’s this kind of movement piece going on around you, which is a movement of readings and interpretations and identifications and projections... So to get from that position of allowing yourself to be read in these multiple, overdetermined ways, and then somehow to be able by the end of the piece to have turned the attention away from you as an embodiment into being just another participant... That must take some delicate management.

RS: Well, that was the challenge of the piece. That’s one of the first things that I said about the piece.

CG: That was part of the design from the start.

RS: Like, I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I need to shift this space from a highly theatrical space and a highly focused space, to a space where we’re all in the room together talking. And I had no idea how we were going to do that. So it has been a bit trial and error. I mean we’ve done some terrible things along the way.

CG: [laughs] Well... it’s unbelievably delicate...

RS: Yeah.

CG: And apart from anything else it’s reassuring to know kind of how difficult that’s been. [laughs] Because it feels like something that lots of us are looking for, one way or another, being able to negotiate that, but one doesn’t often see it done that effectively.

RS: [throws a triumphant gesture]

CG: [laughs] So that was really exciting. Can I ask you a little thing? Which hadn’t occured to me, which is how loaded the word ‘feast’ is.

RS: OK... I don’t know, it always seemed really important that it was a feast. Because it feels like it references harvest; but also we wanted to kind of elevate it slightly. I guess it’s that, it’s elevating it slightly without making it fancy, somehow.

CG: Yeah.

RS: So that’s sort of behind that word. But I can’t remember when it started being “the feast”. It’s been the feast for a while now. But there’s something about how it’s also moving into a slightly playful space as well, you know.

CG: Yeah. I mean that’s interesting, I hadn’t really thought about that, and if you’d asked me I would have described quite a simple trajectory into a very unmatrixed kind of real space, and I hadn’t quite realised until now that, actually, the food is still performing. It’s like, at the end of the piece, you’re passing around this surrogacy that goes from you to the film and the light and then... you know, to the oranges.

RS: [laughs]

CG: That’s fascinating. So... damn you, Rajni Shah, I thought we’d actually got to the end of the turbulence of the performance space, but no! Um... In which light, something I wanted to ask you about which actually really feels very related to that, is the use of nakedness — which is something that, as you know, I’m really very fascinated by and trying to work quite hard with.

RS: Mm.

CG: I don’t know whether this is right, and I hope you’ll tell me whether it’s valid... It feels to me partly like what you’re looking for is, in a way, what I’m also looking for, which is a sense of not accepting the categories of nakedness or nudity but it just being about a body: for once, you’re just confronting a body. And in those terms, I’m really excited about that and grateful for that.

At the same time, you know, not least in terms of what we’ve just been saying about the food at the end, what you’re not arriving at is a point at which the performance is over and we’re just confronting a body. And I kind of wonder whether we can see at that stage just an unadorned body in its own physical presence and not be reading more than that, in a space that’s still seething with a kind of turbulence and complexity that are to do with what it means to perform that. ...Does that make sense?

RS: No.

CG: [laughs]

Stars and Stripes in English Pub
Image by Rajni Shah, Manuel Vason and Lucille Acevedo-Jones


RS: Like, I really understand what you’re saying about nudity and how I’m working with it, and that’s really important.

CG: Well, why don’t you tell me why it’s important to you without me trying to put words in your mouth?

RS: I just didn’t know which moment you were talking about when you talked about “the end” — ...I don’t know if you said “the end”.

CG: I should have tried not to say “the end”. [laughs]

RS: But were you saying: what would it be like if I was still naked at the feast?

CG: No.

RS: OK. Then I misunderstood that last bit.

CG: Though that’s interesting, that’s an interesting thought.

RS: That would be very different.

CG: You’d want a napkin at least.

RS: But, OK, so the thing for me... And this is partly why I’ve shaved my head, because actually if I hadn’t done that there’d still be references there. I mean, that came from Mr Quiver but it kind of makes sense for this as well. For me, this show is about very pure lines. They’re not all completely pure, but the concept is that there are these very pure lines in it, lines of progression: and one of them is just me undressing. I mean it’s not just me undressing —

CG: Yeah.

RS: — but that’s happening, and you get... I don’t know, it’s really complex isn’t it? But it’s also really, really simple, and I think that’s sort of what you were just saying. Can it be just a naked body? Was that what you were saying?

CG: Can it just be a body? I think what I’m really asking is, can we get rid of the idea of nudity, and for that matter nakedness, in a performance context like this where we’re still being asked to be thinking and reading quite acutely about the idea of performance? Can a body in that context stop being ‘nude’ in the sense of — “it’s ok to look at this because it’s art”? Can we get past the nudity to just seeing a body?

RS: I hope so: and you’re right, it’s kind of core to me that this might be possible. But part of the reason I think it is possible is because of this kind of idea of ...landmark, I keep wanting to say landmark, this...

In Mr Quiver I’m very much embodying two figures — people, figures — and then I’m the body that moves between those, and it’s that inbetween space that is hoping to be... — not neutral, but kind of interesting in a similar way. But in this piece, I’m never embodying a person. It’s kind of like a landmark, like becoming a landmark. That’s not completely satisfactory as a way to describe it. But there’s something about that which means that stripping it away is a bit like getting to the nakedness of a statue. There’s always been that standard argument of: why is it ok to have naked statues, but naked people are just frowned upon? But... — and I always have this problem, because I haven’t seen the show —

CG: Right, yeah.

RS: ...so you can probably answer this better than I can: but my feeling is that you’ve been staring at me for so long that actually to suddenly stare at me in a different way would take kind of a will.

CG: Mm. Yeah.

RS: And it is possible, but it’s not ...a default, maybe.

CG: ...Yeah. ...Damn, it’s hard.

RS: Yeah.

CG: It’s tricky.

RS: ...But also I did want to say that part of the reason that I make shows that are like this is because I think you can just be quite delicate and complex in a way that, when you’re talking about things, you just can’t.

CG: Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. Yeah.

RS: So it’s really difficult. Because I know after this conversation I’ll be like, oh, but there are all these other... You feel like you come at it like this, and then there’s all these other things that are unsaid.

CG: Well I think there’s something that’s really very alive in your work, that I try to be comfortable with in mine to a degree, but also I’m quite glad in a way that I’m as uncomfortable with it as I am, which is about that kind of radical uncertainty. Of, in a way, wanting that.

RS: Mm. Yeah.

CG: Preferring the uncertainty, in a way, to the idea that this process helps us to clarify a response to a situation.

RS: Yeah. Absolutely. And I think especially with this trilogy, it feels like that’s really at the heart of it, creating that space and exploring it. ...I really like your earring.

CG: Thank you. I really like this one as well. I think this is a keeper.

RS: Mm. Definitely.

CG: [laughs] Um... Let’s go back.

RS: OK, all right.

CG: And then start working forwards. So... Can we get at it in a slightly, um... — again there might be absolutely nothing useful you feel you can say about this, and I totally accept that, but I was really interested that in talking about the show earlier, you didn’t refer to it as theatre, but you did refer to it in terms of your experience of going to the theatre: you know, the sense of the individual versus the collective or the communal or whatever. So... Do you make theatre? [laughs] I mean I’m really interested in the fact that you are someone whose trajectory has taken you towards... I mean, like you said, the audience last weekend, that’s basically a live art audience, right? That’s probably how they would describe themselves. And I wonder whether you feel like something has propelled you in that direction specifically, and whether that was about an aversion to theatre?

RS: It’s about who welcomes you, really.

with La Pocha Nostra, New Barbarians, Arnolfini, November 2007
Image by Lillput

CG: Right.

RS: And I think what’s interesting about my work in terms of the live art sector is that a lot of the things I value are the things that are valued within the setting of theatre. That are often undervalued in a live art context. And that makes my work interesting within that context. Whereas in theatre the things that make it interesting are the things that kind of make it disappear off the edge of theatre.

CG: Right. Totally.

RS: But, yeah, it was a mystery to me. I thought I might end up in dance.

CG: Well, exactly.

RS: I was hoping! But the dance scene is... horrible. [laughs] And unwelcoming, and, you know, stuck in the Dark Ages. So there’s no option there. But till very recently I thought I wanted to keep in with the dance sector, actually, and it was only probably a number of months ago that I realised that there was no point. And that actually I am a bit of a one for wanting to be doing all these different things at once, and really not settling in one... Because, for one thing, the live art sector’s so small, it can feel kind of claustrophobic. But yeah, so I mean I would say I tend to fall into that sector because that’s where I’m finding work. Which is maybe a bit of a boring answer. [laughs]

CG: No, no...

RS: But it’s where I’m finding support, and it’s where I’m finding interesting discussion.

CG: It’s kind of interesting to me because this is something I fret about at a sort of ideological level — but it’s very easy for me. Not that I feel particularly welcome in theatre exactly, in those terms. But it’s very easy for me to construe these ideas about art forms and sectors as an argument about objectives and aesthetics and, to a degree, politics — without engaging with the practical squeezing of: this is your territory, this is not your territory...

RS: Yeah.

CG: So do you have the sense that the work that you make has been formed — or even squeezed — by the opportunities that you’ve had?

RS: Yes. Yes.

CG: As much as by the trajectory of your own artistic interests?

RS: Yeah. I’d love to say that I just have this really pure vision, and nothing affects it, but if I really look at that trajectory... — I mean I also think I could make work in any of those sectors, and if the theatre sector was, like, ‘Wow you’re so interesting’, I would love to make work that was, you know, sitting in a theatre and questioning those things. But... I do kind of feel like I’ve tried that and it’s just not been happening. I don’t feel like that won’t change, necessarily, but...

You know, I do think they’re really interesting questions, but they’re also just hilarious when you look at Europe and other countries and how different people are classed differently and, you know, how people define dance and theatre and live art, and whether they even have that category...

But that also relates to the question of the whole Decibel / ‘cultural diversity’ thing, which totally influenced where my work went. Because I felt I couldn’t not make a piece that addressed all of those issues that were being forced on to me. And Mr Quiver was kind of a response to that.

So not necessarily to the extent that I’ve made a piece in response to funding that was available. It’s slightly more nebulous than that. But definitely in terms of where I felt I could show the work. Because I think the work is... I’m really interested in the situation you find yourself in as audience and performer, and that’s different depending on whether you class yourself as dance, theatre or live art. And I’m really interested in all of those, actually, and in responding to them, but I’ll do it... I mean, The Awkward Position, for example.

CG: Yeah, absolutely.

Dimitris Papakyriazis and Yvonne Naughton in The Awkward Position (2003-04)
Image by Rajni Shah


RS: Completely responding to the dance sector, and being in Resolution with other companies, you know. But nobody in dance got that piece. Even people in live art, they were just like, well, it uses dance, you know, we can’t engage with it. That piece was particularly difficult, and I actually felt really pleased with it and I thought it was asking some really interesting questions, but it just had nowhere to go. So yeah, it’s definitely influenced me, where I’ve been able to show work or where I’ve got support.

But yeah, the live art sector’s quite weird too.

CG: Mm. [laughs]

RS: I think, you know, within that I’m really interested in the people that are working in venues. Most interesting I think are the people who are working in venues in kind of odd places, but just have this interest in experimental work. And then you get to show work there and you get to engage with unlikely people. And that’s what really interests me, that’s my way into that.

CG: It feels like it’s important, and I guess it’s not an entirely new model but it does feel like it’s emerging more, of the kind of artist-curator, or the artist/activist/curator, where there’s really no need to distinguish between those different practices — that they’re part of one larger impulse.

RS: Yeah. That’s nice, isn’t it?

CG: Yeah!

RS: [laughs] That has happened, and it’s surprising to me, because I always really struggled with that. Like, I do all of these things; how do I place that in the world? And I felt like it was something that I was trying to champion a bit. And then all of a sudden... You know, I’m part of this network with New Work Network called ‘Activators’, and that’s all about artists who curate and curators who make work and how we can support each other. But it also feels like, since joining that network, it’s fantastic but it doesn’t feel that unique, and I like that, that there’s more awareness, and, I think, a little bit more bravery.

CG: I do wonder whether curating gets undervalued as an act of authorship.

RS: Yeah.

CG: Um... Well that didn’t get us where it was supposed to get us, but never mind. Let’s broach the time tunnel. Briefly.

RS: OK.

CG: I can never remember where I met you.

RS: Oh.

CG: There’s this kind of ...vagueness around the beginning of knowing you. Are you vague too? Or... Is this like a terrible thing where I’ve forgotten our first date and I’m a bad husband?

RS: No, no. There were several moments. I sat on a wall with you. I mean, against a wall with you. But you didn’t like me.

CG: Yeah?

RS: So that was the first time.

CG: See, I don’t remember not liking you. But I’m sure you’re right.

RS: Well it was like some kind of audition and I had to draw a picture of myself.

CG: Oh, that thing. I remember that audition, but I don’t remember you being there at all.

RS: You see. Yeah.

CG: Wow.

RS: Yeah, that was that.

CG: That’s really bad. Wow.

RS: But the basic thing that I think happened was that Theron left the country and we were both really sad.

CG: Yeah. That’s true. That’s true.

RS: And then I came and sat in your kitchen.

CG: But I had seen Incarnate before that. And that was pretty exciting.

RS: Yeah, it was. [laughs]

CG: I was just writing about Jeremy [Hardingham] on the blog the other day, because I just saw a new thing that he did...

RS: I heard.

CG: ...a couple of weeks ago, which was extraordinary. And it was making me think about how his influence still kind of vibrates in London — and in theatre-making in all sorts of different places really I suppose.

RS: Absolutely, yeah.

CG: Can you describe what that was like?

RS: Incarnate? Oh God! [laughs] Well, Incarnate was, I don’t know, it was a huge moment for me because it was the first moment when I met a whole bunch of interesting people and I hadn’t really had anything to do with any of them — I mean, including Theron. I went to the audition and didn’t think I had a chance in hell. And I had to do this thing where Jeremy just said, Can you read this bit of text?, and at one point the text said: ‘this person has a fit’.

CG: [laughs]

RS: So I just read this text and then had a fit on the floor. And then he asked me to do [the show]. And it was amazing. I suppose I’d already been doing some work that was kind of experimental, and I’d started exploring that space where I could express things in different ways. But, I don’t know, just suddenly being part of this group of twelve people who were all really interesting and really different and really difficult and some of whom I hated with a passion... But this incredible text: that was just so interesting because of the range of references in it.

CG: Yeah, yeah.

RS: And then, you know, there was this thing where it was like, well, every few days we’ll change the cast, every few days we’ll change the route, and... You know, it was up to us, but also Jeremy held it together in an amazing way, in that he definitely was always there for you, he was always there as the director — he made the decisions that he needed to make; but at the same time you just did your thing and you could make anything happen, and you were playing with the real world and the audience and the text... There were just so many things to play with, basically. And as a group we got to know each other and... You know, the sense of scale on that project was so interesting — in terms of doing [images of] crucifixions on bridges or whatever. You know, if you had an idea, you could just run ahead and do it: if you found a broken lamppost and it looked particularly good, you could just do something. I suppose, for me, on so many levels, I was just discovering.

And it was so exciting in terms of the audiences as well, because they ranged hugely. There was one night where we did it for just this couple who were someone’s parents or someone’s parents’ friends; they were older, and we knew that they were quite religious. And we had no idea how it would go down. But, you know, twelve of us did this whole show and took them around Edinburgh. Just for these two people. And it was amazing.

And I got lost once, and I was terrified, there was that as well. Because you were changing the route every day, and I’m not a really good sort of ‘oh yeah I know my way around the city’ person. And that was terrifying. [laughs] But also because of the people that you met: it wasn’t just the audiences, there were people on the streets... There was this one scene where I was supposed to have, like, a stomach ulcer or something, and I was writhing around this tunnel, and there was this drunk guy, and he just got really upset. And I had to stop and tell him I was OK. But every time I did it he just got really upset.

CG: [laughs]

RS: But, you know, it was just full of those experiences. Just the whole thing for me was kind of ...electric. And there was no real line... Every day you’d be rehearsing and then doing the piece. So it was... you know, exhausting.

CG: Yeah.

RS: I don’t know if I really described it.

CG: That’s fine. I think you did, actually. From what I remember. But also, you know, what really comes across strongly is the kind of boundarilessness of it, again.

RS: Absolutely, yeah.

CG: And the mix of control and... non-control.

RS: In everything. Yeah. And, I mean, Jeremy, you know, is a huge inspiration for that. The timing for that as well, I suppose, for me, was really crucial. It was suddenly like — OK, anything’s possible.

CG: Yeah, right. So when was Hold Each As We Fall? Was that...

RS: ’99. So that was after Incarnate. That was Incarnate-influenced.

CG: Yeah. Well, Gemma [Brockis] did it...

RS: Yeah.

CG: That was fun.

Promotional postcard for Hold Each As We Fall (1999)
Image by Rajni Shah and Allan Sanderson


RS: Yeah, I loved that show, and I love that we only ever did it once.

CG: Did you really only ever...?

RS: That was the whole..., that was one of the things about it, was that it would only ever be done once. We just wanted to do it for one night. Get everyone together and do this great piece.

CG: Wow, I’d forgotten that as well. That’s really nice.

RS: I loved it.

CG: And then post-that, and post-Consolations, there’s this bit of your growth as an artist that I don’t really know much about because you weren’t around, you were far away.

RS: Yeah. It was really interesting, working in Georgia. Because, again, I had to respond to audiences there. And people loved the work, because they were like: what is it? It’s not dance, it’s not theatre... They’d never seen anything like it.

The first piece I made there I was a collaboration with one other woman and that was really interesting — she’d decided quite recently not to be a ballet dancer. We made this piece together, and there was this pattern where I would go: And we could do this..., and she would go: The thing is... nobody’s going to look out of the window, so if you’re doing something in the carpark... You know, it was just really interesting to go, OK, who am I working with, and what are the patterns? And it was so different from London. But really quite incredible to make work for such different audiences.

But also while I was there I discovered this amazing strand of work that I’m still in awe of, by artist-activists, where there’s this incredible fusion of practice in community. Fusion is the wrong word. But that was amazing. I mean what an amazing thing, to have no idea why or how but to end up living in Georgia, in the US, and meeting people. And there were a lot of new spaces that sprung up right when we moved there, slightly underground, really interested in just fusing everything, having music and performance and anything. Just making work, making it happen. But I knew at some point that I wanted to come back, because I needed that hard London edge....

CG: [laughs]

RS: ...to play with.

CG: But you had a sense that you were bringing something different back than you’d gone with, I guess?

RS: Yeah. I suppose it’s partly just confidence. Because I was able to go somewhere, you know, still relatively young, and say: Hello my name is Rajni Shah and I’m a performance artist — and that’s who I was. You know, I’d lived in other places, but I’d never done that as an adult, so that was a really great feeling.

CG: Yeah. So, I know there are loads of things we haven’t mentioned, but maybe we can just finish up by talking about what’s happening now and what happens next, and, you know, how we’re going to save the world, those sorts of things.

RS: That’ll be quick.

CG: Is Mr Quiver going to bed now?

RS: Ah, so, next week, on Theron’s birthday in fact, we do the last show. I’m really excited. We’re going to give everything away. We’ll keep the costumes, but then that’s it. And that’s going to be quite an amazing feeling.

CG: Wow.

RS: So, yeah. Mr Quiver goes to bed. Dinner with America carries on this year and next year, and then at some point I decide I want to make another show that will be the third of the trilogy. And then alongside all that there’s all these other pieces.

CG: Yeah, we should talk about those really, before we finish. But with the third in the trilogy, do you know roughly what space that’s inhabiting in terms of its territory?

RS: No, I don’t really work like that.

CG: But you know it’s a trilogy.

RS: I didn’t know it was a trilogy at the beginning of making Mr Quiver. At some point when I was making Mr Quiver I knew it was the first in a trilogy. At some point after making Mr Quiver I knew the second piece was going to be Dinner With America but I didn’t yet know what that was going to be.

CG: OK, so there’s this vacant lot...

RS: Yeah. I know there’s another piece there. But also, they feel like slices of time: that’s really important to those pieces. So Mr Quiver was very much right then and what was going on then, and Dinner With America already feels slightly out of date, in a great way. So... We’re not there yet. Maybe next year I’ll know. But, you know, it’s really important that they have enough time, because even Dinner With America is only just now starting to become Dinner With America.

CG: After how long? How long have you been working on it?

RS: I don’t know, I mean we’ve actually been physically working in a space since last spring, I suppose. So, a year. But obviously before that we were talking. And I was talking.

CG: [laughs]

RS: Yeah, so I don’t know. But there’ll be a third. I’ve had a few thoughts, but I always have thoughts. I never know until something happens.

CG: I’m sure that’s right. So maybe we should just talk a little bit about these sort of smaller ...interventions, I suppose, in different sorts of places, different contexts.

RS: Well, partly I had a bursary from the Live Art Development Agency, that I ended up using to look at this idea of gift, and conversation, and doing work in public spaces. So, I did a number of pieces that related to that; and that didn’t feel finished when I came to the end of that, and that fed very much into Dinner With America, because, you know, that’s a big part of it, this idea of conversation. Most of the things that I’m doing at the moment are kind of related to that theme but also feel like they’re somehow related to Dinner With America. So one of the pieces I’m doing, give what you can, take what you need, is about having a big meal in a public space and initiating conversations and people bringing stuff to the table and, you know, just looking at that aspect of the show, even though it’s a separate thing as well.


give what you can, take what you need
Futuresonic, Manchester (2008)
Image by Jan & Emily Dixon


...And then developing that gift idea in different places. So the piece in Fribourg will be looking at creating altars — working with people to write letters to strangers, and then creating altars in various public places with these letters that people can pick up and... I don’t quite know yet because I haven’t been yet...

CG: Oh, is that why you’re going twice? You’re going once to look and then once to do.

RS: Yeah.

CG: That’s nice.

RS: It is nice. That’s how the whole thing is constructed. It is nice. It’s just... I like meeting people, and the reason that I make the kind of work that I make is because I feel like it’s more accessible, not less accessible. And there’s this whole other conversation about... there’s this whole experimental bracket where people go, yeah, this is the stuff that’s more difficult, but actually — and this is partly why my work’s always very very visual — I think this kind of work offers a lot of different entry ways to people, and that’s really important to me. So doing pieces in public is great because you just get to meet people and hang out with them. But it also ties into the other work.

So I feel like that’s becoming partly how I identify myself as an artist, I suppose, that aspect of doing stuff in public spaces, or doing it in, you know, Hastings... Not just doing the big live art venues: I couldn’t do that, and I wouldn’t be interested in it. It’s really about taking the work to places where you actually have conversations with people from all over, and some people who don’t like it, you know — that’s fantastic, that’s really important to me. So it’s also about finding ways to do that.

CG: Cool.

RS: Lots of conversations.

CG: Yeah. ...Shall we stop having ours?

RS: Probably should.

give what you can, take what you need
Image by Jan & Emily Dixon

Friday, July 18, 2008

Scattered dreams & certain treats

After the famine, the feast! Yes, I know there are people who started reading my last post shortly after it appeared and have still to reach the end of it; nonetheless, your devoted Controlling Thompson has further public service announcements to make. Oh, baby, baby, it's a wild world, and it's hardly to be wondered at that sometimes there's a lot to say about what's going on in it. I just thought I'd point you in the direction of a few things that are ready for your attention and that aren't, yknow, this. I'll do my very best to be brief, given the lateness of the hour already and the discombobulating robertpershingwadlovianism of my previous remarks: but, ah, who here hasn't heard me promise them brevity before, and who hasn't had their heart broken by the ghastly tyranny of my sadly-inevitable logorrhea? Who hasn't been swept away by the tsunami of my prolixity like some hapless Cnut? You fall for it every time, you melon-farming saps, like Lucy taking the football away. Mind you, I might not have much say in it, given the way my internet connection's behaving tonight. One of the perils of living in a shared house with six of us, distributed across four storeys, all trying to suck the juice out of a single clapped-out wireless router. It's like being a student again and having to put up with the shower suddenly going off, then freezing cold, then scalding hot, in turn, because someone four streets away is watering their cress. (And if anyone knows what that might be a euphemism for, answers on a postcard, please, to the Controlling T., c/o the Dustbin of Theatre History.)

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: Apollo and the Artist (1975).
Oil paint, wax crayon, pencil and collage on paper. 142 x 128 cm.



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.


Screen capture from Hail the New Puritan, dir. Charles Atlas (1986)
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.


Apollo/Dionysus
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.