Tuesday, August 31, 2010

David McCandless at TED


I mentioned a few months ago how much I liked the programme for David Hare's The Power of Yes, which included a great visualization of the relative scale of different billion-dollar-sized statistics -- the cost of the banking crisis versus the cost of the Iraq war, and so on. I was really excited by the immediacy of this rendering of otherwise abstracted and inconceivable amounts of money into a series of legible shocks.

That Billion Dollar-O-Gram is just one of the visualizations that David McCandless (of Information is Beautiful) shows his audience in this presentation to TEDGlobal 2010, the conference devoted to 'Ideas Worth Spreading'. I always like any kind of live event that includes people applauding a graph, and though not everything that McCandless says here strikes me as unproblematic, there's lots in these 20 minutes to please the eye and tickle the brain.



Monday, August 30, 2010

Edinburgh diary 2010: #8


Week 3: As I foretold you, a combination of final week fatigue and the wonderful presence of Jonny in my spare moments and my bedroom meant that it was hard to keep up in the dog days of the festival the daily diary that I'd been (just about) managing to sustain heretofore. So now I'm back at my desk at home in London, barely upright, feeling as tired and sore and confused as a young girl waking up on black satin sheets next to the snoring bulk of Michael Flatley and vaguely remembering a drink that tasted a little bit funny. I'll do my best to piece together an account of the past week's goings-on but I apologise in advance for errors and omissions and possibly for sounding like someone who is writing for the sake of seeing something through rather than experiencing a passionate desire to share his critical insights with the world.

It was a week of great highs and gruesome lows on The Author (for me at least). A feeling of confidence and a measure of assurance that was pleasantly amplified when Karl James, one of our two wonderful directors, popped back up midweek to check in with us. It was great to have a sense of his seeing the progress that I, and we all, had made in the fortnight he was away. But of course The Author isn't made by us alone -- we have a hundred fresh collaborators every time, and, in the light of the slowly revolving mystery that is the Traverse timetable, we know that the later evening shows can often be a very different kind of encounter than the lunchtime ones, say. Thursday was extremely live, and lively -- full of robust backchat (I found myself sitting next to the stand-up Ivor Dembina, who was not backward in volunteering his own material early on) and ending in a welter of furious walkouts. The others dealt with it much better, more than rising to the occasion, while I floundered a bit, couldn't get into gear. (The presence of Jeremy "Corrible" Hunt in the audience can't have helped...) There was, for me, for the first time, a rotten feeling of not being connected -- to the others, to the play, definitely to the audience -- and though the experience in the midst of it was kind of rough but manageable, I found afterwards that I was really discomposed, and out of that unsettledness arose an incredible whoosh of upset -- lots of things I'd been aware I was carrying but not wanting to deal with -- things connected with the play but more to do with myself, my own stuff. I had a great chat with Jonny, who encouraged me to talk to Karl; and then a great, an amazing, chat with Karl the following afternoon. I'm still not quite back in one piece after all that, but I feel a lot calmer, and the last few shows thankfully passed without any aggravation. One curious lady in our final performance yesterday met with such undaunted enthusiasm what she took to be the invitation to improvise that I found myself embroiled in a bizarre roleplay in which she was portraying my jilted lover. I probably should have left her alone right from the start -- it was obvious she was going to be a handful -- but Karl had (very gently and in good humour) called me a coward for not engaging a bit more with Dembina on Thursday, so I wanted to be strict with myself and take it to her. It wasn't productive, in the end: though there was certainly no malice in any of what she was doing -- for whatever reason she had just wildly misapprehended the rules of engagement. We managed to keep calm and carry on and by the end it felt like a good account of the piece -- nobody walked out, and it was generally a good one to end on. Typically untypical!

In fact I had a nice sort of revelation or something midway through Saturday's really OK-feeling lunchtime show -- I went on a little Saturday lunchtime drive in my head, causing me to miss a cue for the first time, though not irrecoverably. I realised how much I'd got into a mindset -- definitely exacerbated by Thursday's hell-ride, though I think it had been growing for a while -- where the task of looking for offers in the audience -- which is to say, trying to read the people around me and opposite me and work out who is willing to be talked to, and might be willing to talk back -- had started to feel like picking out the safe spots in a kind of sea of perils. She might be OK... That one over there might be all right... Don't want to get this wrong... It's so easy to fall in to this pattern of regarding the audience as an essentially hostile field in which singular instances of positivity and openness can just about be discriminated. Whereas actually of course that isn't what the audience is at all, and the sense that they are is wholly projected; in the case of The Author I think the idea that any one of them might walk out at any moment -- because very often, at some point, a few of them do, and one never really knows who it's going to be (though you might sometimes have an inkling with some of them...) -- tips easily into the sense that all of them are potentially hostile to the work we're doing. Actually, on the contrary, though they may be confused or a bit alarmed by the formal games that the piece is playing, almost everyone in the room wants the play to succeed, and even if they're signalling that they're not keen on being roped in to a conversation, it doesn't mean that they're not available to the piece as a whole and it doesn't mean that they're nursing a negativity about it. When I think about the people I've had sitting either side of me in the show (who will normally find themselves roped in to some degree, unless I can tell from their demeanour that they'd really rather not be), I've warmed to almost all of them and they've been very kind to me. Like in the world, you know -- most people are pretty cool most of the time, even those who might see the world through very different eyes than yours -- and you have to be a bit vigilant not to succumb to the narratives we're fed all the time about the fear you're supposed to carry around all the time on account of how everyone you don't already know is a potential sod.

Actually I'd had a reminder of something in that ballpark earlier on the Thursday, when Meredith Monk did a sort of 'in conversation' event in advance of her Songs of Acension in the Festival proper. It was a really enlightening discussion -- Simon Frith, the moderator, was knowledgeable and thoughtful, and Monk herself was (in addition to being surprisingly candid -- not least on the topic of ECM producer Manfred Eicher!) generous and engaged and courteous. (Three adjectives it would have been hard to apply to Elizabeth Lecompte during a boinky and ungracious Wooster Group session earlier in the week; I've seen her do that before, and thought on that occasion that her grouchiness was playful and anyway reflected something a bit preposterous in the conventional manners of this kind of staged conversation -- but this time out she just seemed wilfully contrary and a bit weirdly addled.) One young woman told Monk that she had been training as a classical singer and wanted to know if that meant she wouldn't be able to take on the kinds of extended vocal material that Monk composes and performs. No, said Monk, she would be fine, but the issue was that certain kinds of training made performers fearful of doing certain things -- using particular parts of their range, say. And the inculcation of that fear meant that when they tried it, they would often have an unsatisfactory experience, they wouldn't like the sound they produced, or they would find it uncomfortable. But that discomfort was something that arose out of fear, not out of the task itself being beyond them. -- I guess recounting this now, it sounds pretty obvious, but I think it bears re-stating. It's something that keeps popping up in all sorts of different areas for me at the moment: the self-appointed guardians of the parameters of approved behaviour -- artistic, political, erotic -- whose principal purpose seems to be as the authors of self-fulfilling prophecies about how the experiences that lie outside the borders they patrol will be harmful and are to be feared, with the direct result that transgressing those barriers can sometimes then be painful, can feel traumatic: not as a consequence of the transgression, but as a consequence of the fear that had already been embedded in the experience of the act.

Anyway, I thought Meredith Monk was pretty impressive, at least to the limited extent that I'm willing to be impressed by anyone -- any artist, in particular -- whose perspective is underpinned by beliefs that are first and foremost spiritual rather than political or ethical. Seeing Songs of Ascension is a slight disappointment, even though my hopes for it were not sky-high. I've been interested in Monk's work for many years, since discovering it as a teenager (Turtle Dreams on vinyl in the old Arnolfini bookshop -- I remember buying it in a stack with Morgan Fisher's Ivories, an album by Ron Kuivila, and Univeria Zekt's The Unnamables, which turned out to be a bit of a rarity -- if anyone wants to buy my copy I'm open to offers!), though I'm not a fan exactly. This new piece, for her group of singers/instrumentalists, a string quartet and small choir, is more of the same really. She's a laminar rather than linear composer, so the last few minutes, where she starts to build her simple looping cells and motifs into big complex constructions, are rather flooringly beautiful, but up to that point it's all pretty meagre and constrained. Good to recall that sincerity alone isn't enough (initially I resent the middle-aged couple sitting next to me who clearly find the whole performance risible, but eventually I have to concede that the sight of the winsome Monk, in her late sixties, with her hair in severe braids as ever, skipping around the stage going la la la, is a teeny bit beyond me) and that ultimately I find this kind of Zen-infused minimalism basically unswallowable. Once we can get everyone moved on from irony, the next thing on the agenda is a return to the maximal as the language of high fidelity.

Speaking of which: I took Jonny to see Phil Kay, who was on blinding form -- probably the eighth-ish time I've caught him live and I've never seen him better. He still seems to only really have three kinds of prepared material -- stories about bike or car accidents, stories about getting arrested, and stories about getting arrested in relation to a bike or car accident -- but the way he can use these as launchpads into the most joyous riffs on the here-and-now of the audience and the room we're all in is quite something. He has an extraordinary generosity and abundance about him, even when on occasion he finds himself standing mute and confused in front of a microphone he seems never to have seen before. I ached with laughter after ten minutes, and there aren't many comedians who can get you there so quickly. I will always remember and love Phil Kay for the first gig I ever saw him do, in Edinburgh sixteen years ago, where he tried to thumbtack himself to the low ceiling of the venue and hang by his beard: it was so funny I actually began to panic that my body had no way of dealing with it.

Aside from Kay my other without-fail Edinburgh tradition is seeing Dick Gaughan, and we managed to do that too, and he was as astonishing as ever, both in his songs and in his between-song chats. Reflecting at one point on the propensity of the political left to suppose that Lenin or whoever will be resurrected and lead us all to the promised land we dream of, he pauses for a sip of whatever that is he's drinking, and then simply says: "That's our job." He always has a sure feel for the pursuit of the reductive slogan, making it yield its more radical promise. "Be proud of who you are," he says, as if he might momentarily be channeling Christina Aguilera. And then: "But be proud of who everybody else is, too." He has Utah Phillips's knack of dropping something in every now and then that has the weight of a feather and the impact of a cannonball.

Not much else to report, really: a pretty good evening at the Filmhouse watching some stuff from Dance:Film 10, including a useful Pina Bausch documentary and a film of the original production of her Rite of Spring (an odd choice to represent her work but good to see it again), and an interesting trio of films made by Daniel Warren with Scottish Ballet, with two worthwhile documents focusing on rehearsal, either side of a five-minute piece called Marionettes, set in a supermarket, which I think might just be the most horrible thing I've ever seen, maybe the most horrible thing there's ever been; and a nice wander over to the National Gallery of Modern Art, where they're currently showing a variety of stuff from their permanent collection -- not much of real distinction, but a very good room shared mostly between Kandinsky and Lissitzky, and some excellent Boyle Family stuff. Lots and lots of Robert Therrien, too, some of whose works on paper caught the eye, though the sculpture seemed pretty meretricious to me. But I was a bit grumpy that day and I did need a poo. (...Btw, Karl tells me the buzzword for such disclosures is "overshare"...)

Doesn't seem to add up to much, does it, but it was a week of talking and wandering, really, hanging out with Jonny Boy and seeing old friends and having (quote unquote) meetings; and eating, eating, ohmygod, so much eating; and a fair bit of work, too, on the things that will be happening next and soon, and on some things that will probably never happen but the thought of which keeps everything ticking over.

And that's that for another year. What does it all amount to? How can we possibly tell? The Author could hardly have done better, in terms of selling out and being seen and provoking discussion and standing up for (and with) integrity and rigour and compassion. (And winning a Total Theatre award, to boot. You get a colourful ashtray these days. It's all gravy.) I wish some of the coverage could have gone a little deeper, but in a way those conversations hardly matter: it's all the dialogue that spills out of the theatre into the lives that people lead afterwards, the next day, even now, maybe two weeks on, those discussions that we never hear, the shifts inside people that we mostly never know about, that's where the work of the play is being carried on, not in the churn of this newspaper or that blog. A guy came up to me in WH Smiths at the airport yesterday evening and said the show had provoked an argument between himself and his wife, and I was momentarily concerned, but then I saw that he was smiling and that it was all OK. People went to the theatre and something happened -- not for all of them, but for a lot of them. For some of them, it was (as they Tweeted) the "worst play ever" or a display of "intellectual onanism"; for others, almost regardless of whether they would actually say they liked the piece, it was a really exciting and provoking experience; for still others, it was all a piece of cake and they slightly wondered what all the brouhaha was about, and it was good to hear from those people too, as much as from those who were tearful and angry, and those who were knocked sideways with the stimulation and the challenge of it. For us? I dunno. I like us. I like us together. That's all I can say. For me? I think right now I'm writing from a place of confusion and fatigue but I'm sure of the pride that's glimmering within all that. It's a good thing to be doing, even if I don't right now feel like I feel good. Tomorrow we all go off to Helsinki and it'll be a whole other thing again, in ways that I can't even begin to predict. And then Brighton; and then a little breather, and the resumption of some other lines of movement and interest and inquiry, and won't that feel great, just for a bit.

And Edinburgh? Well, yes, what a great year. Feeling a bit sore as one always does at the end of it all, but generally I enjoyed it, ate it up, with greater pleasure than I have since the very early days of coming. Not sure it was a vintage year, but there was plenty of good work around -- heaps that I didn't see, as well as some that I did -- and, more than ever, I felt held by the city, which after all these years I know better probably than almost any other, and which even when the hills were steep and the rain was punishing felt like a place in which one could live among people and ideas in a way that was nourishing and life-enhancing.

And so let's finish, in my lamentable Aspie-lite way, with a Top 10 of the 2010 Fringe. Discounting non-Edinburgh-specific items, i.e. things that I could have experienced anywhere, e.g. trees, rain, Tim Crouch, melted cheese, Toy Story 3, ... -- here are the defining moments of this year's expo for this particular bedraggled punter:

1. ***** ***** -- the cafe where I spent most of my downtime this year, and therefore, as a place of refuge, of incalculable importance to my well-being. Decent food, nice enough ambience, good location, and, most importantly, half-empty most of the time, even in the thick of the Fringe. Asterisks? If you think I'm going to tell you where it is, you're out of your mind.
2. Forest Fringe -- this was the year where I finally felt in sync with Forest Fringe, with what it wants, with what it's actually doing, and with how it talks about itself and its place in the ecology of performance-making: with the result that I frequently felt moved not only by the work but by the project as a whole. An extraordinary, visionary enterprise, and one we have to be incredibly careful not to take for granted as it continues to embed itself in the rhythms of the Fringe.
3. Martin Creed -- what a rare and valuable experience, to arrive at the top of the festival feeling one thing about an artist, and to leave having learned about their work, having deepened one's understanding of their project, and feeling something completely different: in this case, admiration, excitement, and a genuine fondness. I feel inspired by Martin Creed's work across the festival this year in ways that I'm only just beginning to process.
4. Vieux Carré -- by far the best of (what I saw of) the International Festival programme this year. Restlessly smart, proliferating with signals and drenched in noise, but tender and funny and not at all cool in its coolness: for two hours it held me at the edge of drifting, and then sent me out into the world more awake than I've been in ages.
5. Kieran Hurley saying thanks to "this guy here": the most profound single moment of theatre I saw all month. Hitch is a beautiful, radical show about a beautiful, radical political journey in defense of the interests of beauty and radicalism. I tear up every time I think about it.
6. Joan Mitchell at Inverleith House. A second visit raised some questions but this was still the most ravishing visual art to be seen within walking distance. One of the most amazing colourists I've ever encountered: if Sunny Delight did absinthe...
7. Dick Gaughan -- if I had to choose one moment, then I guess it's Dick getting us all to sing along with 'Geronimo's Cadillac'. He makes it as easy to join in as if it were playgroup, and then you walk out at the end with all the other folks who are walking out, and you think, Wow, I've just sung a song with you.
8. Laura Mugridge -- for her heartfelt pleasure at hearing the rain on the roof of her camper van, and for letting me finally get to see a bit of Cornwall.
9. Frank Chickens -- such an unexpected joy at the end of Silver Stewbilee. Seeing them do "We Are Ninja" live after all this time made me want to do a big 'search & replace' job on the world, in which Frank Chickens replace every instance of Beautiful bloody Burnout, with its horrible fake-showbiz blandness and its SAD ENDING.
10. Cameo -- the most beautiful cinema I've ever been in. I'd buy a ticket just to sit in the auditorium and look at nothing but the curtains. To sit in there and watch The Illusionist, in which an animated Jacques Tati sits in a hand-drawn Cameo cinema and watches a Jacques Tati film, was perfectly and ineffably one of the sweetest, most sublime moments of the month.


And -- no, I'm not going to do a bottom 10: partly because I'm a fractionally nicer person than that, and partly because I've mostly had a really nice time this year: but principally because pretty much everything that would go on the list is just not living up to the overfamiliar edict contained in Thompson's First (And Probably Only) Law Of The Fringe, which still, after all these years, goes like this:

In the context of the Fringe, it is a miracle that anybody turns up to see your show at all -- whether you are an emerging experimental theatre company, a university dance group, a legendary stand-up comedian, whatever, it is amazing that there are people in the room with you, who've chosen to spend their time with you when they could be in 200 other shows right now. They have elected to be with you. You have an hour together, probably, give or take a bit. Just one hour to spend in a room with some people you don't know, most of whom you'll probably never see again. You and these strangers have an hour together and they're all looking in your direction. You have the incredibly rare privilege of spending an hour with some people who just want to look at you and listen to you and who want you to give them something that helps make sense of their decision to elect to spend this time with you. They want to be there with you and for you, to help you say something or show them something. What, then -- specifically -- what is the thing that you most want to say to them, that you most want to show them, these people who are going to pass this hour with you and then maybe never see you again? What's the best use you can make of this time, this company, this rare and fleeting encounter? What can you do that no one else can do? What's the thing that, if you don't say it, these people will never hear said? What, if you don't show it, will they never see, never even imagine seeing? What do they need to know that you think they might not know? What, in this hour you spend together, is at stake? What could you and they, together, gain? To what can you and they, together, aspire? How do you use this time and this shared place in the most productive way?

If the show you're crippling yourself financially to present doesn't at least attempt an answer to these questions, a genuine, carefully thought-through answer, then shut up and go home. Thank you very much.

(p.s. if your genuine, carefully thought-through answer includes juggling, please check your workings before proceeding.)

...I know, it's quite a long Law, even for a First (And Probably Only) Law, but, if it's any help, it's transferable to other, non-Fringe contexts, with a little mutatis mutandis round the crevices.

As for a Second Law (Which Probably Isn't One), I think this is the memo to self that I'd like to write on the back of my hand in indelible ink to withstand not only the rains of Edinburgh but perhaps the precipitation of a lifetime:

What you have the capacity to carry depends partly on how much you're able to let go along the way.

(I want it to be clear that I made that sentence up out of my head, and I in no way was drawing on the title of Bobby McFerrin's little-remembered 1988 single, "What You Have The Capacity To Carry (Depends Partly On How Much You're Able To Let Go (Along The Way))".)

All right, Helsinki, lock up your whatever, I'm coming to see you!

xx

Monday, August 23, 2010

Stella Duffy on The Author


[The old-school blog equivalent of a re-Tweet here...]

As you'd expect, a stellar piece of thinking, feeling and writing -- all at the same time:



Written on the body


Jonny Liron photographed by the amazing Tess Hurrell

At the end of a day of R&D at the Jerwood Space a few weeks ago, Jonny got us all to write words on his body for a presentation he was about to go off and do. Afterwards, his neighbour Tess documented this beautifully ephemeral text.

Thanks to Tess for letting me post a few of the series here, and to Jonny for sending them on, and for wanting to be written on in the first place.







All images (c) Tess Hurrell

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.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Edinburgh diary 2010: #6


Monday 16th August: A precious day off, and I'm determined not to cram too much in. A gentle morning catching up on long-neglected emails; then lunch in town with an old, old friend, whom I rarely see these days, so that in my mind's eye she's kind of still who she was 13 or 14 years ago when we saw each other a lot more often -- then when we meet up there's always a little wobble, not at all unpleasant, of going, Oh, wait!, actually you're you, and all these things have happened in our lives, and look who we are now...

It's an interesting frame of mind in which to go to and see a work-in-progress sharing at Forest Fringe, of an inchoate piece by the brilliant Tom Frankland in collaboration with his dad John, a retired drama teacher, and his dad, Len, who died in 1972. The show centres on a cache of letters and other effects left behind after Len's death, letters written over many years by Len (or, in full, Thomas Leonard Frankland -- which actually is Tom's name too) to his wife Winnie. Actually, only a few minutes of today's showing are given over to readings from the letters; around them orbit a whole range of fascinating thoughts and reflections around intersections between the recorded social and political histories of the last century and the personal narratives that weave in and out of those public stories, and around generational differences in attitude towards war, nationhood, and family. It's going to be an absolutely terrific piece of work, and it's already a very lovely way to spend an hour; moreover, like all the best true stories, there's a totally sensational plot twist near the end which had us literally gasping with amazement. At the moment the Franklands seem to want to downplay the letters and their own family history, hoping instead to use them as an entry-point into these bigger conversations in which we are all invited to participate and to see ourselves reflected. Actually, as I said to them after the showing, for me it's the story that's most specifically about them that is most compelling and involving; I can happily infer a level of universality from the story of Len and Win and the relationship between John and Tom, and what's most interesting to me is not being asked to place myself within the bigger social narratives, but being asked to help hold their story, to listen and empathize and accept. It's a really fulfilling role to be asked to play. -- Anyway, it's already a very lovely thing and I look forward to watching it develop and grow.

It seems like a while since Greg McLaren, prime (or primus inter pares) mover of Stoke Newington International Airport, had an actual show to share; I've been thinking about him a lot this past fortnight, remembering his wonderful performance as C.C. Rugg (named after the name-tag in a discarded vest Greg found somewhere), the unravelling and lovelorn psychiatrist in my show Napoleon in Exile, which was the last time I worked at the Traverse, back in 2003. (Check out young Andrew Haydon's grumpy-ass review here! The sourpuss!) I wrote a diary piece about Greg for the Guardian the following year, which was appallingly subedited so as to make a reference to that vest story completely inexplicable. Anyway, that's all ancient history: what of Greg's new show? Again, gosh, it's going to be fantastic. It's already delivering heaps of stuff. It's called Doris Day Can Fuck Off and it's a sort of impressionistic dispatch from the frontline of a social experiment Greg's been conducting, of singing, rather than speaking, everything he finds he has occasion to say. Lest we mistake this for mere caprice, he begins by asking all of us in the audience, one by one, to sing our names -- and he sings comments back to a few; it's an extraordinarily uncomfortable thing to be asked to do, and a brilliant way of reminding us of the measure of real self-exposure in his singing-only policy. The show itself is entirely sung, a mix of musical musings on his experiences and replays of audio footage from his singing adventures on the mean streets of Birmingham. A couple of effective passages use sample loops to draw out the melodic lines of everyday un-sung speech: a manoeuvre familiar from Steve Reich's oeuvre, in pieces such as It's Gonna Rain and Different Trains (which the Kronos Quartet are playing at the Usher Hall later in the festival), but here more redolent of the darkly off-kilter audio-fixated work of John Moran, or the sweetly quotidian songs of Julian Fox. Greg is an amazing, confounding performer, with the unguarded inventiveness of a Phil Kay, say: you will follow him anywhere, even though you can well imagine him taking you somewhere very peculiar indeed, possibly even somewhere painful. And indeed the briefly exposed emotional hinterland of this show feels disarmingly raw. As it stands, it's kind of a cheerfully reverberant mess, and it will be interesting to see whether he feels he wants to structure it more cogently as he gets used to performing it, or whether its haphazard slideshow quality is something he's keen on in itself and wants to preserve. For now, it's a great testament to his skills as an artist, a performer and -- dare one say -- a critical thinker, that it already has a lingering half-life in my head that feels larger and more dangerous than almost anything else I've seen up here this year.

Back to the house afterwards to get a bit of work done, and to meet the rest of Tim's gorgeous family, who have now arrived. Funny, and very lovely, to meet Jules at last, having heard so much about (a fictional version of) her from The Author. Feel just a little sore too, to be honest: with the Family Crouch reunited, and Vic's kids here and his partner back shortly, and Esther's smashing boyfriend Lee visiting, I confess I have a bit of a lonely moment, exacerbated by the difficulty Jonny and I are currently having in connecting via Skype (the internet here is not great, especially if anyone else is using it) and even by phone (bad reception at both ends). We'd hoped he'd be coming up next week to see Dick Gaughan and Stewart Lee and other mutual heroes, but he won't because of his new job and the pennilessness that the job will soon solve but hasn't yet. So I feel a bit thwarted; and though I'm having an amazing time here this year, I can't help myself: for the first time, I count the days left to cross out on my Edinburgh planner. Still. We're past half way already. Coming down the hill.


Tuesday 17th: For some reason I find the 1pm shows the hardest to do -- doubly hard after a day off. I woke up more tired than when I went to bed; slept too long, maybe. Dreamt I was caught up in an incident in a shopping centre that ended with people getting shot. Later, in the shower, it occurs to me that I hardly ever dream shootings. Knifings, yes; bombings, yes; meteorites, and nuclear war, frequently; tsunamis, endlessly. Perhaps because one sees people getting "shot" all the time in films and stuff, the inquisitiveness of the unconscious mind doesn't so much need to go there.

Anyway, I head off into town quite early, in the hope that the walk and some breakfast will properly wake me up. In fact, by the time I get to the Traverse, I think they've done the trick, but as soon as I open my mouth at the top of the show, I know I'm not quite in the right place. (I don't mean I'm doing the wrong bit of the script! -- although, as it goes, I do have a pretty boinky journey through the authorised text today. Will have to remember to do a little private line-run next Tuesday morning, after our next day off, and just make sure everything's where I left it.) It's a funny sort of performance today: the others are on good form, the momentum feels good, but the audience don't feel as switched on as some have. (This is not to blame them -- as Peter Handke says, or something a bit like this, in The Long Way Round: "If a child looks at you strangely, you are the cause.") We have some fascinating contributions from 'the floor' -- "Would you describe this as postmodernism?" -- and, for the first time in a little while, a couple of angry walkouts near the end. "That is disgusting!" one woman says as she goes. I feel for her a bit: she's brought a lot of stuff into the theatre with her (I mean literally, not psychologically), so the process of gathering all her bits and bobs so that she can leave takes about thirty seconds, in which time she's probably heard more stuff that she didn't want to hear. But then, who wants to hear it? I meet a friend of Tim's afterwards, who has just seen the show for the second time, and she says something very interesting: this second time, she's had a quite different experience, of feeling -- I think these were her words -- that "I don't need the lesson that the play is trying to teach me. [. . .] I don't need these images put in my head." I swallow my immediate response, which is that, I suspect, the moment when you think "I don't need to be told all this" is exactly the moment when you most need to be told it all.

I also want to reverse backwards through the last part of that paragraph and posit an alternate ending, because the answer to the question "But then, who wants to hear it?" is not, or not only, "None of us." I hope I'll never forget, either through familiarity or in the obscuring blizzard of other people's beautiful honest reactions, the intense gratitude, the relief, I felt when I first heard Tim do his final speech, at the end of that dress rehearsal at the Royal Court. Thank God, I thought: for this act of speaking something unspeakable, and speaking it so truthfully: this act of giving us a picture that is so complex, so dimensionalised, the very opposite of the kind of militant reductionism that we're accustomed to. Sometimes it's the hardest thing for us to acknowledge -- including in the serious task of listening to and sitting with this play as a whole: that at the most difficult, the most upsetting moments, love has not fled the scene, love is not absent, care, tenderness are not absent. Love is right there: real love: distorted perhaps, abstracted perhaps, but present, and totally real, and utterly entangled in the terrible logic of harm.

Wander back to the house post-show to get a little work done, though I barely do: I have a spot of lunch, can't get excited about work, try reading some Haring, fall asleep instead, blah-di-blah, the internet, the internet, blah-di-blah-di-blah, where does the time go. At one point I remember that I have a ticket to hear Elevator Repair Service 'in conversation' this afternoon. Get quite a heady rush of pleasure from not being there.

And then, in the evening, to David Bann's for a meal with my old pals Chris Thorpe and Finlay Robertson. Not sure we've all three sat down together since Fin's wedding, and we have a good chat about the work we're all doing, and about stuff we've seen and people we know, and how things change, how we change, as we all watch each other and ourselves getting older. I've known Chris for ten years now and I still remember vividly the person he was, or seemed to be, back when we first encountered each other: such that who he is now -- quite different, tonally, behaviourally, in lots of ways -- is a kind of presence that I find constantly surprising and captivating. In all that time, the number of occasions on which we've sat down and really talked could probably be counted on the fingers of a butcher's mittens, and yet he's someone I'd walk into fire for without a moment's hesitation, and I suspect he would for me. Funny where those feelings come from. It's a good evening all round, the food is as exceptional as the company. I walk back home with Fin and we talk about my experience of The Author, which he'll be seeing tomorrow, and about his new piece Test for Protein which I'll be seeing tomorrow; and we talk about the first time we came up here, in 1994, and how we were a little wary of each other, and what everyone who was in that show is doing now. A lovely end to the evening. Back at the house I'm introduced to yet more new visitors. They seem terrific. It feels like there are 60 people here at the moment and yet the house still feels weirdly deserted...

Two postcripts. Firstly, I want to mention how very much today was enhanced by releasing my iPod from its presumably exhausting shuffle function and instead allowing it to play all the way through both discs of the extraordinary Kate Bush album Aerial. Karl and I were talking about Aerial a couple of weeks ago and it just popped back into my head. It's a long time since I've heard it all the way through and I think it's just the nuts. (Is that OK? "The nuts"?) So open, so playful, so delighting. I dislike exactly one word of it -- I wish she didn't sing "twixt" on 'Somewhere In Between': it's way too Fotherington-Thomas even for Kate Bush. Don't say "twixt", folks, it's not nice. But everything else is basically perfect. The way she sings the phrase "washing machine" so that you feel you've never really heard anyone use those words together before. Oh, and the cameo from Rolf Harris! Beautiful beyond measure. (Yes, I absolutely sincerely believe that -- not the merest dimple of fork in my tongue -- and I dare you to believe it too.)

Secondly: at the end of this gloriously warm and sunny day, may I just make the following announcement: Teenage boys of Edinburgh, whose names I will never know! You looked very beautiful without your shirts today! Thank you for the generosity of your presence on the streets of the city! You did great!


Wednesday 18th: Wow, such a weird day: up and down like Long Distance Clara. Woke up feeling crappy again after a night of bad dreams. Insect dreams, this time. I need to sign a piece of paper and ask for something to lean on; my dad hands me a large bumpy object covered over with a teatowel. As I press against it, it explodes into life: it's a wasps' nest. Wasps are everywhere suddenly, flying into my mouth, lodging at the back of my throat and making me choke. Later I discover my mother asleep in an armchair in an otherwise deserted apartment, with ants crawling over every surface, including her skin, her face. I get a lot of insect dreams. Partly inspired on this occasion, I suspect, by the wasps that keep flying in through my open window from the back garden and can't find their way out again; but also, I think insect dreams are about anxieties around chaos, aren't they, the fear of being overwhelmed, of being unable to control events. I get up early and check emails. My head is thumping, I feel like I've been kicked in the brain. Everything feels jangly and unsettling. Everything in my inbox makes me jumpy, shaky. I probably feel like this at some point every year in Edinburgh but this has come out of an empty sky.

Except that I realise how odd it is -- and this must build up somehow, I think, at the back of the mind or stored somewhere in the body -- that almost everyone who I talk to about The Author -- nearly all of them exceedingly complimentary about it -- will nonetheless express themselves in visceral or violent terms. "I feel like I've been knifed. It was brilliant." "That was amazing. I feel like someone just punched me in the stomach." "It's such an amazing play. I feel sick." At one level I know this is what the experience of The Author is like for some people, because I probably would have described it in similar terms when I first saw it. At another level, it's weird because I know they're talking about their experience of an act to which I was at the very least an accomplice, and they're both talking about it as if it were an act of violence and at the same time forgiving me, hailing me for my involvement in it. And on occasion, especially in the mornings, going right back to the beginning of rehearsals, I too feel very raw and upset and unsettled, as though I might have been involved in a fight the previous night, but maybe I've been too drunk to remember the details clearly. Just remembering the adrenalin, maybe a scuffle, maybe a very clear face illuminated in the darkness. So strange. An odd kind of paranoia, I suppose. I mean if somebody came up to you and said, That was quite a scrap you got into last night, you'd think, Nah, you can't mean me, I was at home, I was asleep in bed. But if twenty people said it, you'd start to wonder.

But I mustn't go on about all this. The Guardian has linked to this blog again, my visitor stats must be going menkle, I'd better not have a breakdown in front of everyone...

I leave in a bleary, tearing hurry to get to Forest Fringe for 12pm, where Fin is doing a one-off performance of a brand new piece, Test for Protein. I'm scared I'm going to be late, but I bump into Fin on the way, so I guess I don't have to worry. I arrive a shade before 12 anyway (having had an appallingly inappropriate breakfast on the hoof -- I need to get back to eating better than this, no wonder I'm going cuckoo-pops) and it's great to be one of the select handful of folks in attendance. I'm not going to post a review here as F. is very clear that he's still at first draft stage, and -- even though I can only imagine wanting to say positive and encouraging things -- that compels a certain etiquette of restraint. But let the record show nonetheless that Fin's an immensely talented writer, as well as of course a performer of great deftness and technical skill, and it's a gripping hour in his company, which leaves me fascinated to know how this piece will develop.

After a delightful spot of lunch with Matt Trueman, catching up on Edinburgh thoughts (Matt's great at the big picture thinking that a lot of critics don't like to involve themselves with, except in so far as it relates to 'trendspotting' exercises) and some intriguing personal tales, I head over to the Traverse for today's performance. Having been able to unwind a little bit with Matt, I'm feeling slightly better than when I woke up, and I'm quite glad of the show today as a focus for gathering myself. It feels like we have a really good one; I feel bouncy and confident, and everyone else is bright and dynamic. My fellow audience cohorts are a delight, too; in particular, a lady called Ann, who, when I show her the (invisible) traces of (fictional) damage to my eye, touches my cheek and gently strokes my face. For me, and I dare say for some others watching, it's absolutely heart-stopping. Every day; every day, something surprising. The resources of people! The stuff they bring in with them that we have no idea about. -- Also, an early walkout today, right at the end of my opening section. Poor guy: I don't know what was going on for him, but he clearly didn't get what he bargained for. A couple of grown-up colleagues from different places congratulate me, and us, afterwards, which is lovely, partly because I hadn't realised either of them was in, and partly because neither of them says it was like I'd driven rusty nails into their eyes or ripped their fingernails off.

The evening is Silver Stewbilee at the Festival Theatre, a big event to mark the publication of Stewart Lee's new book. Mostly it's a fun evening, no more no less: there are guest spots by Kevin Eldon, Paul Putner, Simon Munnery, Bridget Christie; an intervention by Richard Herring, which I assume was planned though it pretends not to be, and I suppose it's possible that it really wasn't; Stew himself is on good form but this isn't his sharpest material, and I anyway think what I most admire about his work is his genius as an architect of a full-length set, the sculpting of an implicit argument across the span of an hour or whatever. And then in the last twenty minutes or so of the evening, all bets are suddenly off. Eldon reappears as Tony Rudd to sing "Machadaynu" (hooray!), and mentions his musical accompaniment, and suddenly there before us are Franz Ferdinand! I have to admit I basically really couldn't care less about Franz Ferdinand but it's still quite a thrill to have them revealed as surprise guests, and they certainly know what they're doing with the playing-in-a-band-together and everything. They do a couple of songs and it feels like the natural end of the evening... and then Stew reappears and -- hold on to your hats -- introduces the legendary Frank Chickens, who are about to win some daft comedy award due to his agitation. Never thought I'd see them live, and they're amazing, amazing, joyous and uproarious and terrifically good-natured. Odd to see Kazuko Hohki in that context now that we're so used to seeing her in rather lower-key performance formats. The roof is raised; Stew finishes off belting out a Mission of Burma song with Franz Ferdinand; good job well done. I'm still looking forward very much to seeing his proper set at the Stand in a few days, but I wouldn't have missed this either.

Post-show, it's a mountain of nachos and a molehill of nattering with Fin and Emma, talking about The Author and about Fin's new piece and about, y'know, stuff. Stuff. Walking back home together we reminisce about the show we did here in 1995 (which featured the great Rufus Jones, who we've just run into at Stewbilee), which was overrunning its slot: our brilliant solution to which was to play the last two scenes simultaneously. Fin then reminds me -- I'd completely forgotten -- that when my solo show Puckerlips was running too long when we did it at Roman Eagle Lodge in '97, our even more brilliant solution that time was to have Fin and Corrin emerge from the audience about ten minutes before the end and have them start the get-out behind me while I was still finishing the show. It worked beautifully, actually, I think -- it was a really messy space by that point, being cleared until, by the end, there was just me, sitting on a stool, alone on a bare stage. So, there you go: sweet are the uses of adversity, or something: and I'm a little sad to think that I almost certainly wouldn't come up with a wheeze like that now. I'd just cut the script. Actually I'd probably write the script to the appropriate length in the first place. Boo to craft skills, a bit.

So that's how it all is today. And then I'm back home and crashing back into myself and the kinds of thoughts I seem to be having of late when I'm left alone to ponder. But I'm tired, I should just go to bed. What can I tell you? That ten minutes ago, this paragraph was far longer, and had a lot of things in it that are probably better off deleted -- not work things, personal things, though, Xt, what's the difference anyway. And that the only sounds I can hear right now are the tenor hum of my laptop and the fits and starts of my typing, and, above my head, with depressingly implausible circularity, a wasp bashing its brains out over and over again on the lightbulb. Mate, I know how you feel.