Sunday, August 22, 2010

Edinburgh diary 2010: #7


Thursday 19th August: Wake up feeling rested and noticeably calmer. Don't know what yesterday's little dirty spike was all about, other than the 766 obvious things. As today gets properly going my brain keeps revisiting yesterday's despair and anxiety, in the way that your tongue will keep bothering a mouth ulcer: but I feel more measured, less embroiled. I'm just watching my brain wig out a bit, from a respectful distance. I keep thinking about the big slogan stuck up next to the building works just round from Bristo Square this year: Balfour Beatty say ZERO HARM.

I make it to Invisible Atom by the skinny-skin-skin of my three remaining teeth: Hill Street theatre isn't where I thought it was -- yes, yes, I know, Hill Street: that's not the point -- I thought I'd been to Hill Street before but I think that whole data set must have been totally hallucinated. Anyway, good to see this word-of-mouth hit. Anthony Black is an assured performer and his writing is frequently exquisite; and I like some aspects of the reach of the show, the ambition to tie economics to particle physics to the existentialist edge of ethical thinking to an almost noirish tale of identity and hauntedness. For me, something's not quite landed, but I still don't know what. I've been thinking about it and I can't figure it out. It's just all kind of nearly. I guess maybe the connectivity within the writing, in which almost everything becomes either a mirror of or a metaphor for something else, eventually creates a sense of dissipation. All these big ideas amount to less of substance than I want. Writing this I'm suddenly reminded of a computer game I used to play as a kid, where you were travelling through space and there were various alien spaceships to contend with, but there was a 'teleport' button -- no, 'hyperspace', I think it was called -- so that whenever things got sticky, you could always hit that button and be instantaneously whizzed off to some other part of the universe. I think the kind of fluidity and mobility that we associate with theatrical ingeniousness are not always the friend of narrative storytelling. Sometimes we have to be held within a predicament without immediately knowing where the exits are, or that there are exits at all. Still, he's done well, for a show that isn't even in the Fringe programme: it's a very good piece, which largely deserves the plaudits it's receiving. Nice to enjoy someone else's fairytale Fringe experience, when it's that deserved.

Laura Mugridge meanwhile is about to win a Fringe First for her adorable Running on Air -- I think I can say that, I won't post this until it's public news. I manage to squeak in to a performance that's been added for the benefit of Joyce McMillan, who presumably needs to be able to speak about it from experience at tomorrow's ceremony. It's a delightful show. An audience of five is invited into Laura's (actual) campervan, Joni -- Joni as in Mitchell but also as in jaune-y as in yellow (which it definitely is) -- and she tells little stories, which eventually in a way turn out to be one big story: about the van, about her new husband Tom (Frankland, who collaborated on the making of the piece and about whose own Edinburgh show I wrote on Monday), about their adventures, and also, in an interesting counterpoint, about the professional stand-up circuit. Everyone is given jobs to do -- Andy, my old production manager on Wound Man and Shirley, plays Tom for the duration of the show; I'm appointed as DJ, so I sit in the front with a box of tapes and an old-school cassette recorder whose batteries suddenly and poignantly peter out during the final song; at one point we all become a band, playing along with a Vampire Weekend song. The participatory element is perfectly judged: it's fun enough to be its own reward, and some of us are gently admonished when we don't quite come up to scratch in our appointed tasks, which is actually kind of a good thing -- this is a piece that's right on the edge of too-sweet sometimes, and a spoonful of lemon certainly helps the honey and glycerine linctus go down. The staging within the van is gloriously inventive and Laura herself comes across as immensely likeable, vulnerable, self-aware. Her genuine pleasure when it starts to rain -- we hear the downpour bouncing off the roof in an ineffably comforting way -- is a joy in itself. If anything, it's all over too soon, and I'm not sure I've ever thought that before about anything in my entire life. Certainly not when I've had my trousers on.

Most of today's inter-show downtime is spent in a series of cafes, curled up with diabetic-inappropriate beverages and comfort snacks, reading Stewart Lee's new book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate. It's absolutely enthralling stuff. The main body of the volume is taken up with transcripts of three of his stand-up shows from the last decade; I already know half of this stuff almost by heart (though these are transcripts rather than pre-scripts, so there's plenty of variation and an appealing verbatim clunkiness, with every hesitation and extemporisation captured), and it's only successful on the page up to a point. But there are footnotes throughout -- sometimes more extensive on the page than the main text -- that are brilliantly incisive, self-analytical, sardonic, and, like the routines themselves, mining layer upon layer of irony to sometimes quite disorienting effect. An introductory chapter tracing Lee's career trajectory, through three distinct phases (the middle one being his involvement with the blazingly mediocre Jerry Springer - The Opera, the one thing on his CV that excites anything other than wild admiration in me), is fascinating, and the models -- both artistic and practical -- that he describes for the professional structure on which his 'comeback' was designed are hugely inspiring to someone like me who, halfway through Edinburgh and no longer feeling or looking like a spring chicken, is given to frequent convulsions of despair about the sustainability of it all. It's a terrific book, as thoughtful and warm and sour as a stream of artificially intelligent piss, and I'm going to read a bit more of it as soon as I've finished my homework.

The show, when we get round to it, is terrific today (if I may say so) -- I mean, I really enjoy it. Or, no, enjoy is never the right word, but... it's kind of stimulating. I have given myself a task today -- in response to a particular note from Karl and Andy which I have known all along was right but I have never had the balls to really address. I finally feel confident enough to see what I can do about it. It feels like attempting a really difficult skate trick for the first time in front of a hundred people, including quite a lot of friends and peers and biggerwigs. It puts me in quite a different place right from the start. In a way it ties up with something I've been feeling for a few days now: something about wanting to give myself a slightly longer leash, in a way. There is something a bit scary, that doesn't get any less scary with time, about not knowing who the audience are going to be when I meet them, and what kinds of conversations we're going to have together. There is obviously a task of containing those moments -- in so far as, regardless of the latitude I have in playing Chris, it's a scripted play, and I have to keep us on track and in the right place dynamically: and so there is a sort of inbuilt trauma to do with the mismatch between unpredictability and latitude versus containment and on-track-ness. What I finally feel ready to do is to trust that I can do that job of containment more instinctively now, and as an upshot, I can start minimising that sense of trauma by matching myself a little more to the place where the rest of the audience is. If I don't know much about where they're going to be, then I don't think I want to know, or feel that I know, quite so much about where I'm going to be either. Enough to be able to do the job, obviously, but no more than that -- wanting less of the sense of clinging, security-blanketwise, to a foreknowledge of how I'm going to do the job. For the most part, I like what this gives me, and it's something to explore more. It's just freedom, really, the freedom that comes with having done this a few times now. As for the skate trick bit, I'm not at all sure that I land it, but it's exciting to find myself in a completely different place than usual at the point in question -- I really do feel like I'm in mid-air, actually -- and though there are all kinds of misjudgements in how I do it in the specific moment of doing it, it's interesting to feel a different kind of reaction in the room, too.

Afterwards, for I think the first time in the run, I stay for a drink in the Traverse bar -- about as uncongenial a space as I know, when it's as crowded as it permanently is once we get past Week 1 -- as I've got friends in who are interested to talk. It's interesting, as talking about The Author always is; that said, one doesn't necessarily always want to have the conversation, but tonight it's OK.

A little internet pottering before bed, and an unusual sensation to finish off the day: I really really disagree with Lyn Gardner about something. We don't always agree, in fact we probably don't see absolutely eye to eye on as much as you'd think, but I've hardly ever read her and felt really troubled by something she's said. No surprises, it's an element in her not-unpositive review of BADAC's The Cry, which she has already disarmingly described in an earlier Tweet as an "interesting companion piece to The Author". Here's the passage that I trip up on:

[W]hile this is clearly a piece of theatre, the blood is real. Played out in a wire cage, the actor playing Hussein (Steve Lambert, who also directs) has his head repeatedly held under water; he is pushed and kicked and again and again; he is thrown against the wire. As the performance continues, his back becomes red and raw. Blood trickles from a cut on his arm. For the audience, this presents a tricky situation. Walk away and you are effectively put in the position where you are walking away from all those who are tortured by governments around the world. If you stay, are you being complicit in what is happening on stage, or bearing witness?

So, let's say what I'm not saying before I try and say what I am saying. I haven't seen The Cry and I'm not going to take issue with Lyn's -- or anyone's -- assessment of its successes as a piece of theatre: it might, on its own terms, be really well achieved. For some, my not having seen it will invalidate anything I have to say about it, and that's fine; for myself, I find the rhetoric extruded by Lambert and the company around their work to be indicative of a profoundly misguided conception of theatre and a contemptuous attitude towards their collaborators and their audience (which is one group of people, not two), and I'm disinclined to go along and see for myself in the same way that I would feel fairly relaxed about declining to meet friends for dinner at a restaurant where the waiters openly shout obscenities at you and gob in your food while you're eating it, even if I'd never been there before and had only read about it in Time Out. (Actually I'm told that Garfunkel's is getting a lot better these days.) Nor do I have a moral problem per se with performances in which the participants consent to possible or inevitable physical harm to themselves. Directors asking actors to risk such harm is another matter -- such consent is nearly impossible to negotiate in a genuinely equitable way -- but this doesn't arise here as Lambert is both director and injured party. There is a perfectly honourable tradition of performance that includes intentional physical injury: not only the lineage of soloists such as Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Ron Athey, Franko B, Dominic Johnson etc., but also whole territories such as pro-wrestling and, arguably, classical ballet.

What's crucial are not the ethics of masochism or self-harm as they relate to performer and "witness" (scare quotes because it's the mot juste, I think, not because it's not), or even questions of consent, but rather questions of matrix -- in the sense that Michael Kirby uses that word -- and metaphoricity. Sure, the way in which Athey or Franko's work is staged may complicate the task of bearing witness to their blood-letting: still, we are asked to see them, and to see ourselves seeing them, and the encounter which the performance frames is present, nonsubjunctive. BADAC's work proceeds along different lines, in a much more consciously 'theatrical' way (in the regressive sense of that word). Lambert, in The Cry, like the other actors in The Factory, are part of a metaphoric construct: not necessarily a fiction, exactly, but a somehow poetic presentation in which they are to be read as standing in for others, separate in space and time and cultural experience. They subject themselves to pain and humiliation -- or perform the actions of such subjection, with however high or low a measure of simulation, taking however many or few precautions to ensure their own safety (judging by the injuries sustained by Lambert so far in the run, which has necessitated the cancellation of a number of performances, we can be sure it's a diffcult balance for them to assess) -- on behalf of others whose stories they wish to tell. There is in other words a supposed carrying across of information, from one place, one set of experiences, to another place and different context: that's what I mean by the metaphoric quality of this work.

What concerns me is the interferent signals produced by the staging and performance of real harm, as described by Lyn's piece, in such a concertedly metaphoric construct: again, to be clear, not with regard to any ethical question around the actor's consent to physical harm, but in relation to the register, the conceptual or experiential space, in which the audience is asked to respond. I was horrified by a dialogue I had at the Guardian blog a couple of years ago in response to The Factory in which someone argued that the piece, which they would not hear criticised, had given them a valuably direct insight into what it would have been like to be subjected to violence, abuse and degradation in the extermination camp at Auschwitz. This person was pleased with the "empathy" that she had felt. Well, I dare say she had, and I'm sure the piece had a powerful effect on her during and after the performance. To suggest that there is any continuity, however, let alone contiguity, between the experience of Auschwitz and the experience of The Factory is, to my mind, intensely incorrect. I utterly detest the way in which our own experience of an entirely delusional "empathy", activated through a constructed onslaught that exists in a basically dishonest relationship with its own artifice and metaphoricity -- "look how real this experience is!", becomes our take-home reward for having tolerated our own (relatively trivial) abusive relationship with the makers of the work. It is exactly this violent, power-hungry obscuring of the categorical distinction between the actual and the metaphoric -- enacted by the makers but absorbed and carried forward by the audience -- that can be seen in Lyn's genuinely disturbing statement: "Walk away and you are effectively put in the position where you are walking away from all those who are tortured by governments around the world." The work being done there by the word "effectively" is obvious and crucial and horrible. No: walk away from The Cry and you are walking away from a constructed event; to walk away from it says nothing in itself about your attitude to the use of torture. In that "effectively" is the after-image of the interference produced by the company's yoking of the actual and the metaphoric in such a way that the actual is overwhelmingly and misdirectingly valorized -- by overwhelmingly I mean it uses its sensational power to evade the faculties that we all have for making critical distinctions between different kinds of representation. Rather than being held in a relationship with the play-ness of the play, evidently you are not only invited to see through the matrix, to suspend your apprehension of it, but actually to disregard it, even to reconstrue it as conceptually dishonest. If that's not too clear, I apologise -- the bottom line is, those may be real cuts and marks on Lambert's body, but you are not witnessing real torture, you are witnessing a simulation of torture: the realness of the injury to Lambert is absolutely irrelevant to the apprehension of the artifice of the production and thus to the construction of your role as "witness". They are two completely different elements, but their conflation happens within the premises of the piece, and that action strikes me as fundamentally dishonest and abusive and repellent. What I don't know is whether BADAC have thought this through and decided it's justified -- in which case I can only say I wholly disagree -- or whether they've failed to think it through sufficiently and as a consequence genuinely are under the impression that their dedication to these procedures is some kind of public-spirited martyrdom -- in which case, their carelessness is toxic but, sadly, unexceptional. About audience response to The Factory, Lambert told The Guardian: "the only thing that matters is that they've felt something". I think that's one of the most dangerous statements I've ever seen an artist make: and, come to think of it, one of the most banal.

Heigh ho. Finishing the day wanting a little reading time and having spent quite a large part of the last few hours with Stewart Lee, I pick up instead Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist, which I bought not long after we arrived here, but I haven't looked at it properly until now. I hardly ever read novels, but Baker is someone I keep an eye on, having been batshit hubba-hubba crazy for his early The Mezzanine and Room Temperature in my teens -- and I figure The Anthologist might be an interesting read as it's clearly in part a pretext for Baker to use a first-person narrator to ventriloquize some of his own thoughts about poetry. I'm slightly suspicious of it, but it passes the test to which I subject all potential bookshop purchases that I'm not absolutely sure about: I open the book in question three times at random, and if there's at least a good line on each of the three pages I skim, then it's coming home with me. The Anthologist passes this test with ease. Picking it up properly for the first time tonight, I once again open it at random. The first line my eye finds begins: "James Fenton -- who is the best living love poet..." -- GAH!


Friday 20th: Word reaches me that at the Fringe First ceremony this morning, Joyce McMillan openly dissed my DJ skills during Running On Air. This from someone who played condiment-based percussion like a boozed-up auntie at a wedding reception in a Travelodge function room. After a power cut.

Today feels pretty laid-back: I don't have anything in the diary until 7pm. I'm intending to head over to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art -- my traditional wander down by the Waters of Leith -- after lunch: but when, just as I'm getting my poop together to leave, it starts to rain, I'm not at all downcast in deciding to stay put at home all afternoon instead, and when the sun comes out again after ten minutes, I simply choose to ignore it, to rise above it.

So there's nothing really to report until that 7pm show: a lovely piece by the dance artist Robin Dingemans called Not What I Had In Mind, over at Dance Base. (Always nice to drop in there.) Dingemans worked with 28 individuals for a day each; most of them had no involvement in or connection to dance. Asking them questions and giving them prompts, they each created a small amount of dance material, which is then collaged together (with a little commentary) in this piece. The movement thus created is fascinating in its variety, if only intermittently genuinely interesting as dance in itself. As someone who frequently uses questions, task-based stimulus and provocations of that ilk to generate material within longform improvising and devising contexts, I'm particularly drawn to the meta-material, as it were, that Dingemans employs. "In a stream of consciousness, imagine a dance or choreography," runs one instruction; another asks: "Is there anything you don't dare to tell me that you can use me to express or represent?" One amusing section lists the prohibitions Dingemans is given by his collaborators, the things they say they absolutely do not want to see him do: "Pretend to be a robot"; "Move in a camp manner singing in a language that cannot be understood"... It's easy to imagine that a day in a rehearsal studio with Dingemans must be a fun experience, and an intimate and challenging one; I love the format of the project, and occasionally -- not least right at the end, as Dingemans performs a whirling, lyrical dance with water arcing beautifully out of a plastic bottle in each hand -- it achieves a real emotional impact. The presence of musician and sound artist Manuel Pinheiro onstage throughout -- gamely allowing himself to be drawn into the physical action at times -- is warm and lucid and helps to keep the piece grounded and watchable. I'm really glad to have seen it.

A curious bonus drama attaches itself to the performance, as well: one female audience member has brought a very young, very restless child with her, who enjoys being young and restless directly behind me. After maybe twenty minutes, during which time the behaviour of the child (or, I suppose, the behaviour of the mother in not circumscribing the behaviour of the child) has caused obvious consternation to other audience members as well as Pinheiro and the technical operator -- though not visibly to Dingemans -- an usher approaches the woman and they have a conversation which I can't quite hear but which doesn't appear to go well. After a bit of a lull, the kid gets livelier again and the woman eventually leaves, stopping on her way out to remonstrate with the usher. Afterwards, there's a lot of nattering on the topic, with everyone appearing to side with the usher; as I leave, another audience member is talking to the mother about how "we all have a responsibility towards the work". Everyone is being pretty calm and polite but there's certainly a strong sense of feelings having run high. I'm only writing about this because I really couldn't work out how I felt about it. Initially I thought this might partly stem from not knowing the circumstances: did the woman really want to bring her child to see the piece, to start the process of exposure to dance at the earliest moment? Or was the whole episode simply a reflection of the inadequate childcare provision at the Fringe, meaning it's really difficult for people with young kids not to take them around with them? And then I figured that actually either of those was a perfectly valid reason for the child to be in the room anyway. As part of my current policy of trying to make friends with stuff that would otherwise be annoying, I early on mentally re-drew the circle of the performance so as to include the contribution of the child -- to a degree this happened anyway, especially at one point when one of Pinheiro's mics picked up the child's crying and processed it (through an effects unit) along with the rest of the musical input at that moment. So, I dunno. There's no denying the kid became a major element in my experience of the piece, and in everybody's I guess. Perhaps what I feel uneasy about is that it was obviously very quickly taken for granted in that situation that the child didn't belong in the room (and that therefore neither did the mother). But if young boisterous children don't belong in a room with experimental dance, there's not much hope for either party, really, is there?

Speaking of boisterous audiences... The mid-evening slot came round again on the Author carousel. These late(ish) shows have been good to us so far but they're always a bit edgy, a bit volatile. Tonight they're a talkative bunch in the early stages and they get busy with talking again nearer the end. We haven't had such a bumpy one since the preview and during Tim's final speech we get closer than we've ever been to having to cede control of the room: not only are people leaving in droves, there's also a major exchange of views going on, a hiatus in the play (at the sorest of moments) that probably in the end adds up to a couple of minutes maybe. The tipping point has been a question being put to Tim -- more than once -- which, within the frame of the play, he could not answer: this infuriated a couple of people and the room started to heat up. I'm less scared than I was at the preview -- partly because of exactly that precedent, and partly because there are plenty of people in the room who are clearly with us: including the wonderfully supportive presence of Adrian Howells, the originator at the Royal Court of the character that I'm now playing, and the playwright Jo Clifford, who is sitting next to me and is an astoundingly warm and open and generous companion all through the show. So I feel safe enough, though I'm worried for Tim -- and he's understandably a little shaken up afterwards. It's the most severe turbulence we've had: but it also takes me a couple of minutes to leave the auditorium, as a lot of people who stayed want to say thank you. Upstairs, I run into some students for whom the piece seems to have been quite revelatory, and we talk about it for a bit; as we're talking, and they're expressing their thanks and support, somebody else comes up to me, a friend of a friend (I haven't met her before but she's seen some of my stuff), and tells me she's never been made so angry before by a piece of theatre. It's easy to tell she's not kidding. We agree not to try to have the conversation she wants to have while feelings are so high -- we'll meet in a while, in London, and talk it over. She leaves, and I'm back with the students, who liked it so much. It's a strange experience; but equally strange that it's such an uncommon one. Somebody says tonight straight after the show how great -- and how rare -- it is to go to the theatre and for something to actually happen there. True dat. 


Saturday 21st: Straight back out for the early show, and it's like cool sour cream after hot salsa. (Sorry, but with all these visits to the Traverse bar and the Filmhouse cafe and Negociants, you should probably brace yourself for a bit of nachos-related imagery.) Before the run we were, I think it's fair to say, not much looking forward to these early shows, particularly at the weekends -- Traverse 2, during our occupancies of it, is not a safe place for sore heads. But actually, early morning audiences tend to be softer, more malleable, easier to draw into a shared place. The four of us feel like we're on good form, the show is pacy and airy and bright and sharp. We have a couple of walkouts in odd places -- one immediately after Tim's final exit, but before the lights change and the usher has opened the doors to signal the end of the event. But it doesn't matter, actually, and I leave feeling pretty good about the work we've just done together -- not just the four of us, but all of us in that room.

I stick around the Traverse for Teenage Riot, the new Ontroerend Goed show, a companion piece to their multiply brilliant Once and for All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen which garnered awards and ecstatic reviews here a couple of years ago. The new show: not so much, apparently. (Though Joyce is pro in the Scotsman, I see, so another Fringe First is not without the bounds of possibility in a quiet year.) For the Playmobil-scale little that my opinion's worth in this crazy mixed-up world: I think it's a superb piece of theatre, really terrific. I'm immediately reminded of the work and conversations that Jonny and I had in the early days of making Hey Mathew (and have continued to have on and off ever since) around the idea of the den, its importance as a category of space: intensely personal, often saturated with eroticism, and at the same time sort of vividly dissident -- a kind of prototypic Temporary Autonomous Zone (though you don't necessarily see it like that when you're eight). Teenage Riot is pretty much set in a den, a closed box with a live video feed from inside projected onto the outside, so that we can see a little of what's happening, while constantly being needled with the thought of what we're not seeing and all the other ways in which we're being excluded, even when we're being directly addressed or performed at. There's no denying that, while Teenage Riot shares the sophistication of Once and for All..., it's a less immediately appealing experience: the new show is constrained where the former was expansive; the joyous anger of the earlier piece has become sour, sardonic, hateful even. But Teenage Riot seems to me subtler than its critics are currently giving it credit for. Like Once and for All it shares with teenagehood itself an excruciating sense of its own constructedness as a performance, but it places under even greater pressure the desire -- in performers, dramaturgs and audience alike -- for a kind of reliable authenticity: the corollary of which is a sort of pact between everyone involved, both inside and outside the den, the premises of which are constantly being renegotiated. In some ways it's not a very enjoyable hour in the theatre -- though parts of it are a blast: but every moment of it is theatrical to its core: urgent, intelligent, complex, unstable, and radiant.

I figured in advance that I'd need a little breathing space after the Ontroerend Goed show, either way: so I'd already booked myself into a film at the Cameo. (Ah, Cameo, I love you so.) You know this already: The Illusionist is an animated feature directed by Sylvain Chomet (Belleville Rendez-Vous) from a previously unrealised screenplay by Jacques Tati, who is captured quite uncannily as the struggling magician at the centre of the story. It's as near as dagnabbit a perfect film, I'd say -- so nearly perfect as to be, in a way, slightly less than wholly satisfying: it's so exquisitely controlled that maybe it lacks the little flaws that help a film to breathe in time with its audience. But for all that, I was totally captivated: it is an achingly sad film, sweetly melancholic throughout -- though there are big laughs too -- and then (to these tired and emotional eyes, at least) almost unendurably sad in its final minutes. Wonderful to see it here, too: it's mostly set in Edinburgh, and I've never seen the city better captured on film. Even the rain is exactly right.

Idle Motion are having a good year with their show The Vanishing Horizon, at Zoo -- it's a piece that lots of people are talking about and writing about with enthusiasm -- and I've been looking forward to seeing it. If in the end I can't quite share that enthusiasm, it's no reflection on the potential that this young company has, nor on the care that's gone into making this piece. In all sorts of ways it's lovely. Initially, I thought that my mixed feelings about the show were indicative of a jadedness that I'd brought in with me. This isn't (quite) like me: The Vanishing Horizon may be chock-a-block with devised theatre cliches -- an abundance of suitcases, fairy lights, animated suit jackets, and swooping, endless decorative swooping... -- everything but the ukulele, in fact -- but I'm sympathetic to the cliche in general: it's simply an idea that lots of people find resonant; and anyway, as the girl says in Once and for All..., (something like) "I know it's all been done before -- but not by me!" Nonetheless, what this show does feel like is the clearest indication I've yet seen of the way in which devising has become, at one level at least, all but stultified by its new orthodoxies, which seem now to be embedded in its practice at least partly through the preponderance of taught courses in devising, from school level upwards. Devising has accidentally -- and lethally -- become an aesthetic, rather than (or, at best, as well as) a conscious commitment to certain kinds of working structure and process. At times I feel incensed at the middle-classness of this show, these six appealing, well-spoken, young white people, doing their object manipulation and their swooping. I'm sure almost everything I've seen this year has been the creation of white middle-class people and it hasn't bothered me. But this is something else. This isn't just well made: this is the Well-Devised Play, often appearing as bewilderingly trapped in its own unrefreshed, uninterrogated conventions as we thought Rattigan terminally was before we all started reading him a bit more inquiringly a few years ago. I do want to reiterate that I don't really hold any of this against the company themselves. It's great too that they have the support of Oxford Playhouse. Hopefully that space and time will encourage them to dig a bit deeper, and enable them to begin to discover a language that is wholly theirs, without the influence of (I guess) older advisors for whom devising has become a tick-list of transferable skills and memes. I've never seen a devised piece that smacked less of the pleasures of playing. It doesn't matter how pin-sharp the execution is: complicity (in this sense) is not something that can be choreographed: it grows out of a strange, searching necessity and a kind of love: and those things grow out of risk: and risk grows out of not-knowing. The Vanishing Horizon is a cavalcade of known knowns.

Just quickly on the Kronos Quartet, as I only lasted the first half of their concert. Crammed into a wretchedly uncomfortable seat in the upper circle of the Usher Hall, and bored to tears by their opening piece, Aleksandra Vrebalov's ...hold me, neighbor, in this storm..., I suddenly felt really tired and out of stamina, like the white Daley Thompson in Ocean Software's Daley Thompson's Decathlon with his energy meter down to one block, mere seconds away from stopping altogether and just standing in the middle of the running track scratching his albino head. Pity really, as I'd mostly booked out of excitement to hear them tackle live George Crumb's extraordinary Black Angels, which was programmed for the second half that in the end I couldn't face. It was, for all that, good to hear for the first time in years Steve Reich's Different Trains, though the measure of liveness in the performance is nugatory, considering the amount that's on tape for them to sync with. Given what we're now used to hearing sampling technology do, Different Trains, a mere 20 years on, seems so rudimentary as to belong more with Reich's early tape pieces than current multimedia practice; what stays fresh is Reich's sensual pleasure, during this period, in richer, stacking harmonies, a full-on club sandwich layering thick sixths and ninths and elevenths over a restless, angular base of fourths and fifths. For all that, and perhaps still a bit bothered (after the Idle Motion show) by the stupidity of convention, I feel a bit ungenerous about Kronos's sleek hipster manneredness -- it's the same annoyance that trendy schoolteachers give rise to -- and, not for the first time this month, I rather wish I was back in Dalston, at Cafe Oto, watching scruffy people making scruffy music, that's as live as your life and twice as screwy.

In other news: oh, man, I hate Derevo. I think I hate them a little bit more each year. I mean I don't. I don't hate anyone. But if I did, I would hate Derevo, a little bit more each year. I would want to always feel that however much I hated Derevo at any particular moment was the most I had ever hated them. I love Stewart Lee, though, and Stewart Lee loves Derevo: and thus the whirligig of time... etc. etc., blah. -- Oh, man, I hate the whirligig of time.


Sunday 22nd: Damn and blast the Edinbubble. I've only just seen that Edwin Morgan has died. Very sad indeed -- he was one of the really important poets (for me, I mean; but also, for poetry), and a man regarded with immense affection and great respect. Poets make things; Edwin Morgan made things better.

Yet another surprising Author today: an audience that felt warm and open and level-headed: but nearing the end there were still half a dozen walkouts. Relatively calm, at least by comparison with Friday's shenanigans, and no exit speeches, though one man who stayed put announced, during the exodus, with remarkable confidence and clarity: "We get the authors we deserve, like we get the gods we deserve." Quite a line -- though I suspect it may actually be a Muse lyric. Seriously, though, the last few days have been exhausting, for all of us, and after tomorrow's blessedly timely day off, we'll have to be really careful to take the last week one day at a time, and to keep looking after ourselves and taking good care of each other as we enter the home straight.

After yet another underachieving few hours at my desk, I'm back out into the world for The Wooster Group's Vieux Carré, for in an act of unbelievable generosity, Tim Crouch -- yes, the Tim Crouch -- who, you will notice, shares nearly both of his initials with Jesus Christ, and I can't believe that's just some meaningless pagan coincidence -- managed to track down a ticket, and gave it to me rather than keeping it for himself. Astonishing. Reckless, even. And I'm happy to say that the benefits to me extended way beyond mere presence. This, at last, is the transcendentally great show I've been waiting for all month; I wasn't sure it would be, I'm not a Wooster devotee, but I found it truly inspirational. The most interesting thing here, for me, is not simply that they're layering up references and responses to three overlapping generations of queer artists in America -- the typically overheated source play by Tennessee Williams is refracted partly through the work of Paul Morrissey (particularly the seminal Flesh, which I'd say is one of the three or four greatest and most important American films of the 60s) and Ryan Trecartin -- though that is in itself rich and fascinating. What really lifts this is the Woosters' deep understanding of how queerness and theatricality insinuate themselves in each other's operations: not simply how queerness is inherently performative, but how theatre is innately queer in its slipperiness, its dissidence, its "endless becoming" (in Martha Graham's toothsome phrase). Queerest of all in this piece, I think, is how it holds so much just at the threshold of legibility -- fragments of sound that can barely be caught, video images that are difficult to read at a distance, surtitle texts that proceed too fast to be processed, the beautiful interferences produced out of the shifting of layers of quotation, palimpsests of historical signatures that decorate the melodrama; even the characters, broadly drawn but weirdly remote, remain unreadable even as they telegraph their stereotypic behaviours -- the ingenuous writer, gradually corrupted; the priapic artist and the hustling charismatic junkie, both played with customary elan by Scott Shepherd; the jealous, unhinged landlady... The problematizing of reading, the flickering of legibility, the stressing of signs in the border zone between public and private, are all fundamentally constitutive of a radical queerness. With regard to the piece itself, all of this adds up to a complexity and fullness that's both intellectually incredibly stimulating and tonally frequently drop-dead beautiful: the extraordinary sound design (by Matt Schloss and Omar Zubair) perhaps above all. For all that, ultimately there's a depthlessness -- of a quite particular variety -- which is sort of as expected but still slightly disappointing in the circumstances: what's missing, I feel, is a willingness to take sufficiently seriously the erotic desire that seems to me to be high in the mix in Williams and Morrissey, and pertinent (if ambivalent) in relation to Trecartin. The different flavours of camp and/or performative display in all of these artists do not, or at least do not only, indicate a cynicism about sexual desire or a contempt for the ludicrousness of our responses to desire -- our own and that of others; but it's hard to think of a moment in the piece that's actually sexy, that's actually suffused with desire. A recurring image in this piece is of men in jockstraps, who can't get any more naked because of their wireless mic belt-packs, with their little red LED indicators: this is great commentary, and a witty sign (among many), but it's a measure of the way in which the Woosters are way less in thrall to the imperatives of sexual desire than their subjects. That may be mostly a good or a necessary thing but it's odd for such a languorous, sex-obsessed play to feel so celibate. Having said which: I was kind of wondering whether it was that reluctance around desire that stopped the show feeling exciting, and then as soon as it was over I realised I'd spent the last two hours in a state of high excitement, I just wasn't processing it as I went along because there was so much else to do. I left the theatre on cloud 9, in a whoosh of inspiration and adrenalin. I've seen some good work this year that's made me want to make work myself -- Kieran Hurley, Robin Dingemans -- but Vieux Carré is the first thing that's reminded me of how much I want to make the work I really want to make. How I should be agitating to make those things happen. I walked home listening to Astrobrite's Whitenoisesuperstar so loud in my ears that it made my sinuses hurt.

If that weren't cool enough, I'm picking Jonny up at the bus station early tomorrow morning. Yes dear reader, it's all worked out after all. At least for now. Yay! So you'll have to forgive me if for that reason the coming week's blog bulletins are less full than I've been coughing up so far. -- On the other hand, Celebrity Masterchef is now over for another year (Dick wuz robbed!!!), so that should free up some time.

1 comment:

Cardinal Pirelli said...

Just to say I love reading your updates.

I was moved to comment, however, to agree with you about 'Teenage Riot', although I think the term 'enjoy' is a term I would most definitely use.

I wrote a response to Lyn's review yesterday in the comments there, I go under the name 'Cardinal Pirelli'.