Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Little victories; or, Dances with imbeciles

I'm sure I've mentioned it here before, probably several times, but it bears repeating -- or, at least, it will please me to repeat it: there's not much that's as lovely as the moment when a new show has finally opened and consequently, at long last, there are days again. Work, or rather, going to work, is something that now happens in the evening, and there are days -- but not those sort of days that have no (rent-paying) work in them and consequently feel uneasy and undeserved. These are days to be used without pressure, days to dance in, days for treading lightly.

Thinking back a decade or more ago, when I was working at a brand consultancy (i.e. not for The Man, exactly, but for The Man's dealer), I remember a project about different kinds of women and the different ways they would likely use a range of cosmetics and toiletries. One group of women -- thankfully I can't remember our shorthand name for this demographic, but they were women in early middle age, trying to cope with fulltime jobs and school-age children, and therefore really busy all the doo-dah day -- were identified as likely to be craving "little victories", and therefore eager to lap up any new product the use of which would have an enhancing effect on their self-image without taking more than a few snatched moments of their precious time.

It used to make me nauseous, this "little victories" thing. I mean, yuck: it sounded like setting the bar so low that to limbo under it was actually more strenuous than aiming a bit higher. In my furious mind I filed it alongside Paul Eddington's statement, on a Face to Face interview with Jeremy Isaacs towards the last stages of his terminal illness, that he would want his epitaph to be: "He did very little harm." Really?, I'd think, in my twentysomething dudgeon. The horizon of our aspirations is going to be not doing too much harm?

Now I've been round the block a time or two more, I can accept that, actually, not doing harm -- and moreover trying even to imagine, let alone commit to, ways of not allowing oneself to be so wretchedly complicit with the harm done to others in our name -- is a pretty steep project: and I suspect Eddington, with his Quaker background, had a reasonably acute grasp of that.

But I thought I'd resisted falling for the whole "little victories" thing until today, when I realised that much of what's given me the most pleasure in the past few weeks has been the small stuff. If you're as allergic to the small stuff as I always thought I used to be, you might want to skip this post, it's going to make you want to punch your computer.

What set me off on this train of thought was that an absolute highlight of today was finally, after living my whole adult life without one, buying an ice-cube tray. I've become more and more aware of how life-enhancing it is to drink really cold beverages: a slow epiphany that was particularly piqued by staying a few days at the Midland Hotel in Manchester, with an ice bucket in my room and an ice-machine on the floor above. It literally made my week. Ice machines, it turns out, are really big and really expensive, even the cheap portable ones. But an ice-cube tray, I figured, was within my reach -- in fact a twin pack set me back precisely 99p at the supermarket this morning -- and already I feel like a million dollars. Sure, the purple-headed ghost of Paul Eddington would probably want to remind me that this purchase surely counts as an instance of unnecessary harm at various points down the crazy river. But my sugar-free lemonade is so cold, Paul! Here, have a sip! I've always wanted to watch a ghost drink lemonade... Sexy, huh?

Oh, hey, look, here's another little victory. I've had it in mind to give myself a summer haircut for weeks now, tiring more than a bit of looking like James May's third-best mate, and wanting once again to bring myself closer to the example of the single coolest person who ever lived, i.e. post-haircut V.S. Brodie in Go Fish. But it's obviously one of those things that gets nudged down the to-do list. Until today! Thus: at 5pm today I looked like this:

and by 6.30pm I looked like this:

i.e. John Lydon's accountant. (Poor old Wall-E, forced to gaze down on my day-to-day follies and say nothing.)

What a great day! I did laundry! Ah, laundry. And I spent the pre-haircut part of my afternoon switching back and forth between the excitingly incompatible windows of the England vs Slovenia match and this very touching and likeable reading by the late Robin Blaser: which in turn inspired me to spend some time this evening working on a longish poem that I started writing a few months ago and I haven't been back to in a while. It's probably the most technically difficult piece of writing I've ever attempted, in terms of the formal constraints I've given myself -- though hardly anyone will ever really see the traces of that task; it's not a case of ars est celare artem especially, but I've donned a sort of conceptual camouflage straitjacket, and most readers will only ever find themselves thinking "hmm, this is a weird one" but have no idea why I've done what I've done. Actually, I have very little idea why I've done what I've done, except that I've always really liked this odd thing of making poetry a sort of escapological task for myself: tying myself up in an absurd knot from which I have to struggle to extricate myself.

For the record, the poem's called 'DSM-5 is a rock chick, staring', and it uses the technology of the sestina, but develops it into a more complex armature; the poem is essentially shaped as what I'm (half-facetiously) calling a hendecagrammatina: that is to say, a sestina in the form of an eleven-pointed star. This structure causes the eleven dramatis personae to rotate and permute, coming into endlessly revised relations with each other. Those characters include my dead mother; three of the human presenters of Sesame Street in the 80s; Isambard Kingdom Brunel; and an ostrich. (Not just any ostrich: this ostrich.) I'd show you the diagrams behind all this but the trouble with that sort of attempted elucidation is -- as John Cage used to say -- "you will only make matters worse". Anyway, I made a bit of progress; really, I'd like to finish this and maybe write another new something-or-other in advance of SoundEye, where I've been invited to read next month. (It's in Cork. Come over! We'll have fun.)

While we're doing poetry, three top-of-mind things you might like to know about if you don't already:

Sarah Kelly has a new book out with The Knives Forks and Spoons Press; I haven't got hold of a copy myself yet but Sarah's reading at the Situation Room a few weeks ago was quite astonishing: I really think she's on to something. And Knives Forks and Spoons have a 3-for-£10 offer on at the moment which could hardly be more attractive.

I really like Michael Leong's book of "cover poems", The Great Archivist's / Cloudy Quotient, which can be downloaded for free (as a .pdf) from Eric Elshtain's excellent Beard of Bees Press. It's a small collection of poems created through the classic Oulipian technique known as n+7: you take a source poem and replace every noun in it with the seventh noun along in the dictionary of your choice. As Leong himself notes in his blog post on the book, this operation most usually produces wackiness and not much more (though it's often good wackiness, as with Harry Mathews's exemplary version of Wordsworth's Daffodils, which in his n+7 version -- exploiting the permission with classical source texts to keep counting in 7's until you get to a word which has the same syllable count and metre as the text you're working from -- becomes Imbeciles. ("And then my heart with plenty fills / And dances with the imbeciles.") Anyway, what particularly satisfies about Leong's book is that the 'cover version' poems he produces, almost without exception, are really kind of beautiful and interesting in their own right, and go way beyond wacky or quirky into something rather pleasing and oddly profound. This, by the way, I take not to be mere serendipity: like all the great Oulipians, he has a finely developed sense of source texts that are likely to prove fertile, and he's smart enough to think hard about which dictionaries will produce the most interesting results.

And thirdly, after idiotically blanking on it for a few months I've rediscovered the immense joys of poet, publisher and musician Timothy Thornton's superb blog The Cadfael Forecast. His recent post on the hand-crafted production of Francesca Lisette's as the rushes were is just delightful; and, from a little further back in the archive, how lovely to read a transcription of a verse retelling of Hamlet by -- who else? -- Ronnie Barker.

Thornton stitching Lisette

Now: I suppose I had better say a little about Henry & Elizabeth, the show we're currently playing in people's houses. It's been a fascinating fortnight. The email feedback we've had from audiences has been great (though that's necessarily a trifle self-selecting -- if you feel it's all a bit meh, you don't bother writing -- unless you're one of the newspaper critics who, as I suspected, felt it was all a bit meh -- because, on the night they saw it, it probably was a bit -- and was professionally obliged to say so). But we've had some odd gigs too. H&E is kind of a fragile show, in a way, and presumably if, as I suspect they sometimes do, our audiences expect something more along the lines of knockabout domestic panto, or Brian Blessed shouting to be let out of the freezer, then our rather quiet, gentle little piece must be thoroughly confounding -- and then, there are just some people in your house, and maybe you don't particularly want them there any more, and it's just weird. I keep being reminded of that episode in The West Wing where Leo briefly considers hiring a violinist to play for his wife at a romantic anniversary dinner at home:

You don't want a violinist?

To play the violin?


Is that what people get now?

I know it's available.

No. 'Cause after the initial thing wears off there's just a guy with a violin in my house.

Well, quite. And of course it's the performances that feel ever-so-slightly not quite right that loom a lot larger in the mind (...all right, my mind...) than the ones that work really well -- of which there have been plenty.

Spending time with Boz and Claire, the two actors, has been, on the other hand, consistently and reliably wonderful, and we had some good times over the past fortnight in our two HQs: Northampton, and Yarm, nr Stockton. Yarm's a sweet little town which seems somehow to have repelled or anyway avoided the influx of most chain stores -- the high street is unbelievably ticketyboo, with its bijou (and mostly pretty high-end) independent shops. So neat and tidy and petty-bourgeois is it that I started to fantasise the existence of an equal-and-opposite town called Narm, where everything is run-down and desolate. If you see anyone walking the streets of Yarm with a hair out of place, you know they're just back from a tour of Narm.

Two competing highlights of Yarm: a couple of really amazing meals at Everly's, with some dishes I'll remember for a long time -- a stonkingly summery pea and broad bean risotto; a surprisingly delicate vegetable lasagne with wilted samphire and perfect yellow courgette; a warmly spiced rhubarb trifle with a gobsmacking muscavado ice-cream on the side, which nearly had me on the floor. (As the lady behind the bar at the nearby Black Bull noted: "Diabetes, it's become very popular of late, hasn't it?") And then, passing from the sublime to the ridiculous, we sat up late one night at the hotel drinking with the legendary punk poet John Cooper Clarke, who'd been playing Stockton Arc that evening. JCC's now just into his sixties, but doesn't look a day over 130 -- as he himself said, the day he turned 60, he suddenly started resembling Ronnie Wood -- which he really does. (Actually to me he seemed to look like a dyed hybrid of Enid Blyton's Mr Meddle and Joan Hickson's Miss Havisham.) He told a great story about how a friend had told him, some years ago, that there seemed to be a poster of him on one of the inmates' cell wall in Prisoner: Cell Block H -- or it might be Siouxsie Sioux, he couldn't tell: so JCC tuned in and was pleased to see that it was indeed a photo of him. -- Not being the hugest fan of JCC, I found I was quite easily able to take the whole conversation in my stride, until he mentioned that he'd opened for The Fall last year at the Sage in Gateshead, and then I must admit I went a little weak at the knees.

No such starry starry nights in Northampton -- unless you count Boz himself (and why wouldn't you?), whom one of the waiters at the curry house we went to on the first night recognized from an insurance ad on telly a few years ago, and was delightfully beside himself all evening. That aside, and notwithstanding an extracurricular trip to an apparently legendary bikers' roadside caff called Super Sausage, where I gave up trying to eat the worst omelette I've ever seen or even imagined in my whole life, probably the most exciting moment of the week for me was finding, in a bag of supermarket own-brand Hula Hoops (the O-shaped potato snack, not the midriff-bothering fun-deletion apparatus), what I imagine to be the longest Hula Hoop in the world. This freak among nibbles, this Robert Pershing Wadlow among crisp-aisle also-rans, has travelled with me everywhere since its discovery, swaddled in inches of bubble-wrap: but now I can unleash its eye-boggling magnificence upon its rightful gasping public. Behold!

If anyone wants to measure it, touch it, pray to it, etc., get in touch quick -- I'm feeling a bit peckish.

Oh and while we're in this Cabinet of Curiosities mode, let me hold something else in front of my webcam for your edification. (No, missus, I promise it's not what you think. Not quite.) This is an artefact I meant to show you several months ago when it first came into my possession, but I lost it; and now it is found, like the repentant sheep or ...whatever.

So, it is this way -- and you're going to have to believe this story, because the whole thing's a waste of time if you don't -- but you trust me, right?, after all we've been through together... -- The first time I went to pick up my diabetes meds at the pharmacist, after my diagnosis last year, it so happened that the prescribed number of Metformin tablets meant that in addition to a couple of full boxes, I also needed an additional seven tablets. This consequently meant that one of the foil trays the tablets come in would have to be cut down to size by the pharmacist, so that I got exactly the seven tablets I was due.

You will I'm sure appreciate the complicated mix of reactions I experienced in quick succession on arriving home to find that the seven odd tablets had been cut down to the shape below -- and I must emphasize, I have done nothing at all to modify this:

Thus, I suspect, a little victory for the pharmacist over one of the hordes of annoying, impatient sick people he has to deal with all day. I'm not un-glad to be his stooge, all things considered.

Off to the Alys at Tate Modern tomorrow, I hope; before that, a Skype chat with Karl and Andy about The Author (with rehearsals just three and a half weeks away -- exciting! frightening! excightening!); after it, more plotting with Jonny about some work we plan to make over the next few days, weeks, months, years, lifetimes... And on Friday, we begin the London run of Henry & Elizabeth. Will drop in again asap to report on any or all or none of the above.

-- Oh, wait, I almost forgot -- before I go -- the very beautiful and deeply extraordinary Sam Amidon, whose gig at Bush Hall last month was one of the drop-dead best concerts I've ever had the incredible fortune to attend, has recorded a cover of "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina & the Waves (the original of which just happens to feature -- I think we can say this without requiring a six-foot spoiler alert -- in H&E). It's not the greatest thing he's ever done but it's pretty cool and listening to it last night as I walked along by the canal made me very very happy. You can download it for free here. But you'll have to supply your own canal, I fear.

And finally, in every sense -- touching words from a boyhood hero of mine, who died last week:
Dare we hope? We dare. Can we hope? We can. Should we hope? We must, because to do otherwise is to waste the most precious of gifts, given so freely by God to all of us. So when we do die, it will be with hope and it will be easy and our hearts will not be broken.
-- Andy Ripley
Walking on sunshine; dancing with imbeciles; daring to hope; doing less harm... That's enough to keep you busy, right?

Friday, June 11, 2010

Room 202 where this afternoon finds me. Room 202 of Holiday Inn, Northampton. (It's like Room 101 but twice as bad.) ...Actually, it's fine. I love hotels like this. It's the best part of touring.

Henry & Elizabeth seems to have got off to a good start, though annoyingly, as (seemingly) ever, the one slightly misfiring performance we've done since we got here was press night, where we struggled in a pretty minimalist apartment with an open plan kitchen / living room and a three-storey journey to the car park outside: all of which, while not ideal, we can handle, even all at once: but there's a difference between handling and actually inhabiting, and we never really got close to being able to tune the space to our story. Press nights are always tricky anyway, if you're trying to create any kind of intimacy or emotional pressure. A couple of slightly underwhelmed reviews have emerged so far -- in The Times and at Reviewsgate -- neither of which I can quibble with. It's irritating though given that the response from regular audiences so far has been a great deal warmer and more excited. But, so it goes.

Something that strikes me about Henry & Elizabeth which interests me very much but might not be so appealing to some critics and other stakeholders, I suspect, is that compared to some of my earlier home pieces, The Tempest above all but also Homemade and even We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! to some degree, is that its performance matrix is very delicate, as light and fragile as spun sugar. The Tempest in particular was all about a kind of transformative, concertedly metaphoric experience: the cupboard under your stairs becomes Caliban's lair; it's Ferdinand's enforced labour at Propsero's bidding that leads him to do your washing up. In H&E, the cupboard under your stairs is where Henry has a scene about looking for something in the pocket of his coat; Elizabeth does your washing up because there's a scene in which Elizabeth is doing the washing up. So the way in which your experience of your home is inflected by our presence, both during and in the aftermath of the performance, is rather subtler and less seductive; less rapturous, but more likely to flicker. It's funny how this pushes what is actually rather a conventional and naturalistic play, albeit one told half through direct storytelling, into the realms of non-matrixed (or barely matrixed) performance, normally the domain of live art. But I doubt it will be seen like this: it's a theoretical observation which is not high in the mix of the experience itself. ...Well, time will tell what the Guardian and the Sunday Times made of it.

Speaking of The Tempest, I've just uncovered, in a cobwebby region of my hard drive, a bunch of old photos from a decade or more ago, which I thought I might share, in lieu of having anything interesting to say. I was looking for much more current publicity photos, which it seems are nowhere to be found, but these are a diverting if useless consolation prize.

Gemma Brockis and Tom Lyall (both currently viewable in Shunt's splendid Money) as Stephano and Trinculo in Signal to Noise's The Tempest, in the summer of 2000.

Photographs by Finlay Robertson.

Gemma again; Tom again, with Rajni Shah in background; Jeremy Hardingham with Gemma experiencing a sudden flurry of snow at the cinema.

The Consolations, the very first Signal to Noise show, at The Place, London, autumn 1999.

Photographs by Sarah V. York.

Theron U. Schmidt as bisexual rock star Cody Wyoming, atop a ladder at the end of part one of The Consolations. The amassed detuned radios proved somewhat controversial among more politically sensitized colleagues, for reasons that I couldn't at that point comprehend; I do, now, but I still think the efficaciousness of the scene wins out for me.

And another key scene: in the foreground, Gemma blows the (pretending to be) unconscious Jeremy's pinwheel while Rajni and Stefan Warhaftig dance (i.e. fuck) in the background.

And an all-time favourite rehearsal snapshot: still frantically making The Consolations, about four days before the tech. Jeremy, Stefan, Rajni and Gemma in one of the littler rooms at the Jerwood Space.

I can't remember who took this one.

Even further back: an action shot from my first (almost) solo show, Puckerlips, at the Gate in early 1998 -- this picture was taken by an automatic camera on a timer, placed on-stage by unspeaking fellow-performer Theron Schmidt; there was one shot every night, but few of them were as serendipitously composed as this. At this point I'm singing a song called "Over the Road", about joyriding angels and similar sixth-form bobbins. Right now I'm reminded of the night the eyebrow pencil which Theron used to write the time on my forearm broke, and he ended up sort of scratching the numerals into my skin. Thus, the invention of emo, or something.

And secondly, with Theron, a promotional shot for Puckerlips in Edinburgh the previous summer, taken on King St in Cambridge, where we found this bit of smashed-up reflective something-or-other on the pavement.

Photo by Jeff Cain. (Hi Jeff, if you ever see this!)

And on the cusp of prehistory: Emma Williams in River Phoenix on the Sidewalk, the last show I directed as an undergraduate, May 1995.

Photo by me, I think.

And a picture of me in a playground in Cambridge, a publicity shot for my 1994 May Week show How To Cut Your Family's Hair. This photo, taken by one of my cohorts in the show, Dan Roberts and Erica Rogers (sorry, can't remember which), is probably the photograph of myself that I dislike least in all the world: I used it as a publicity shot for years, but I really can't get away with it any more.

And finally... (a bit off topic) -- the Non-Controlling Proto-Thompson himself, as featured in the October 1998 employee list of Leo Burnett Ltd., where my job title was 'Idea Stimulator'. A fairly epic depressive breakdown and the unfairly epic queer physical theatre wig-out The Consolations followed within about a year, in that order. I don't look like this any more. I don't honestly believe I ever did: though I do still have, and occasionally wear, that shirt, which has survived longer than any of the cells in my body as pictured.

Shall we leave it at that? It's nearly time for Eggheads.