Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tolstoy in the rear view mirror

Well, this is bad, isn't it. I'm not sure but I think this is now the longest gap in transmission that Thompson's has ever experienced. The reason for which is that this spring is probably the busiest period of work I've ever had; I can hardly remember the last time it felt like there was a spare hour in the day. I think I was promising -- certainly I was intending -- a big post threading together reviews of and reflections on some recent (actually, not so recent any more) cultural intake; so, I started writing that post on May 6th and haven't been back to it since. I have to tell you now [anxious nation huddles closer round radiogram] that, although I still very much want to write that piece, there's next to no chance of it appearing here before the end of June: by which point it will have passed through irrelevance and emerged into the realm of historic interest -- so perhaps there's some consolation in there.

It's nice at least to report that though things are frantically busy here and sometimes a shade more than brimful, I'm having fun and keeping my head. Not hard at the moment: I'm working on a project that, though it's difficult, is proving an absolutely gorgeous place to live the greater part of my waking life. Some years ago I picked up a copy of a collection of short pieces by the not terrifically well-known French modernist writer Blaise Cendrars, and was absolutely knocked for sixty by it, and by (nearly) everything by him that I subsequently read. Part of what I was tantalised by was how theatrical some of it was, and then how incredibly not-theatrical some other bits were: or, no, I don't mean not-theatrical, I mean impossible to stage, which is another matter entirely. So over the past few years, having slipped bits of Cendrars into pieces like his horses in 2003 and Mixed Ape in 2006, I've been trying to coax various folks into letting me make a piece based entirely on this extraordinary writer's life and body of work; I did a little R&D at New Greenham Arts shortly before Martin Sutherland left, and pitched something to LIFT just days before Mark Ball arrived there, and nothing further came of it in either case. But now, o now, thanks to the magic touch of my producer, the amazing Ric Watts (in cahoots with whom I have just launched the all-new Chris Goode & Company), Arts Council England have given me a little money with which finally to get down and dirty and hold my feet to the Blaise, or trail a Blaise, or some other weak pun of your choice. (He started it! It's not like it's his real name...)

So the past two weeks we've been the guests of the lovely Matt Ball (packing his suitcase even as we speak, after a brilliant tenure) at CPT, and this coming week we'll be showing our workings so far to a small invited audience, hopefully containing one or more industry mega-wigs who will want to hurl time and money and Luncheon Vouchers at us and in so doing help us to make the big ambitious impossible project I always wanted this to be. What becomes of us all, I can't predict -- it's very difficult to see quite where a show like this would sit, it's a kind of register of experimental theatre that has more or less vanished from the ecosystem over the past few years -- but what's certain is that doing this work has been a complete pleasure. I've loved the feel of the room, really felt comfortable in its skin. Mostly because of the incredible company. The amazing Mervyn Millar is in there -- it was Merv's current adventures in a particular species of live animation that started the ball properly rolling when I visited him in his teeming makeshift laboratory at Central last summer; so too is the lovely James Lewis, who has built the big Longwave and Wound Man and Shirley sets for me in recent years, and designed the version of Kiss of Life that went to Australia, and more recently was my delightful co-pilot on the LWF scratch of Keep Breathing at STK. And then three of my favourite actors in all the world: Gemma Brockis, who I think I haven't worked with since ...SISTERS; Jamie Wood, who I haven't worked with (qua actor, anyway) since Longwave, bafflingly; and Clive Mendus, who did Monologue with me, gorgeously, in Bath earlier this year, and with whom it's a delight therefore now to be working on stuff that involves, you know, actually getting up, moving around, those sorts of things that didn't interest Pinter very much but at which Mendus is a Viking, as any fan of his work with Complicite &c. will tell you.

The great thing about working on Cendrars is that by simply wanting to draw close to his writing in a theatrical context, patterns of thought arise, and shards of terrible necessity penetrate the unwitting imagination, which simply wouldn't otherwise happen; it's a bit like trying to communicate with aliens. (I'm guessing.) Often you can tell the vital signs of a piece by the list of props and so on that need to be sourced, and that's always been a joyous part of the process for me: whether buying a punnet of 36 frozen mice for The School of Velocity or ordering six thousand jellybabies for Henry and Elizabeth. The props list for the Cendrars piece -- which is named after one of the texts it's drawing from: The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre-Dame -- has so far included broccoli (for cramming inside a balloon, obviously), clockwork teeth, copper sulphate, a bicycle siren, honey, and -- if we can bring ourselves to commit to it -- some or all of a deceased squid. We have spent some time watching the old Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers serial from the 1930s (fantastic!) and even more time examining parts of Clive under a microscope. All to a trippy-yet-bracing soundscore of Messiaen and, crikey, David Bedford. (The composer, not the litigious moustachioed long-distance runner. Can't help thinking we missed a trick there.) My brain feels like it's been massaged with one of those freaky-deaky head-scratchers that make you think you're being attacked by a Louise Bourgeois spider. But the expansiveness has been so exhilarating, and the laughter has been so abundant, we've hardly noticed the lack of daylight and ventilation in our working quarters.

So, I'm sorry I can't invite you to the showing -- unless I already have -- but fingers crossed, sooner or later there'll be a version that everyone can come along to. With or without squid.

Once Cendrars at CPT is done and dusted, it's off down to the NT Studio for another week of R&D, though on a project that could hardly be more different: a verbatim-based thing that I'm eager to make, based (at this stage at least) on an extraordinary set of interviews conducted at my behest with great generosity by Karl James of The Dialogue Project (and co-director of The Author and other T. Crouch golden greats). I won't say too much about this one, forgive me -- the actors don't know a thing about it yet, really, so it would seem rude to tell you first. I can exclusively reveal, with all the bravura force of Neil Sean's column in the Metro, that it looks like I'm going to have five very very exciting actors in the room, who, once again, as with the Cendrars, will perhaps be so kind as to save my Facon [TM] as I potter around trailed by the cloud of still-not-knowing-yet.

And then from there, Chris Goode & Co goes straight up to Leeds, for another low-daylight week, this time at West Yorkshire Playhouse. For their very interesting and already manifestly productive Transform season, we're doing something called Open House, which goes a bit like this. Five of us (me and James Lewis again, with a different three performers: Tom Frankland, Jonny Liron and Theron Schmidt) will be ensconced for a week in a rehearsal room at WYP, from early morning to late evening every day from Monday 13th June, making a new piece, entirely and utterly from scratch (or not even scratch, really -- from itch... I'm sure I've probably tried that joke out here before, sorry), and in five days flat: we'll be showing a 'completed' (ha!) version on the Friday, with work-in-progress sharings from the Wednesday evening onwards. So far so frightening. What makes this doubly scary -- but, for me, the thing that makes it worth doing in the first place -- is that, right through the week, the door will be (metaphorically, at least) open. So anyone who wants to, whether they have any experience of theatre making or not, is welcome to rock up at any time with their Transform season wristband, and they'll be admitted to the rehearsal room: where they're invited to engage however they please. Some people, I expect, will just hang out and watch as things happen (or don't); others may want to be more involved in the conversation, or maybe bring us ideas or stimulus materials; others may actually want to be an embedded part of the process, whether for half an hour or half the week. In fact there could even be people in the cast on that Friday who we haven't met yet, who have never acted before and who have no idea right now that that's how they're going to be spending that evening. Which is kind of a fantastic thought. Feeling as tired as I currently do, I must admit the whole idea feels a bit more daunting now than when I conceived it a few months ago: but the challenge feels irresistible, still. More importantly, this isn't just a gimmick for Transform, a one-off novelty. Really I think a lot more work should, and could, be made like this. Certainly I think R&D and rehearsal processes should be a lot more open, more porous. Hopefully Open House will be an eyecatching way of making what could otherwise seem a merely theoretical point. When I started out I used to hate the idea of anyone peeking inside my rehearsal room; I felt my duty of care to the actors and creative team meant they should be protected, they should have a sense of a closed door. But lately I ask, more and more: protected from what? And can't the necessary care be taken of whoever happens to come into the room? Certainly the sense of a closed door, whatever else it may be and whatever reassurances it may signal, is not much to do with theatre.

Beyond Open House... well, I won't go too far into the future. Work will continue on the new home piece, Where We Meet, which is an exciting prospect; Wound Man and Shirley will be at the Pleasance for the last week of the Edinburgh Fringe; and there are a few odd readings and other appearances coming up. I'll do my best to keep you posted.

Have to say, I'm really hoping there's a week in all this somewhere -- maybe post-Edinburgh if not before -- where I can go away and have a bit of a rest and a think, maybe a big think. I won't get into it now but I had an experience about a month ago by which I was very shaken -- not in a bad way, just in an unsettled way -- which I haven't been anywhere near to having the kind of space it would take to really think about it. I've been very aware of suppressing it, or dealing with it only tentatively and in small cautious blips. Certainly while it's unresolved -- sorry, it's annoying to be so mysterious, but it's a huge story if I start to try and tell it -- I'm aware of it interfering with some of the work I'm trying to do: a little bit with the Cendrars and the verbatim piece, and massively with a little something I'm writing for the Bush, which was due weeks ago and about which I now feel turbulently conflicted. (Not in a way that will prevent me from finishing it -- all I need for that is a little bit of time.) It's the first time in a few years that something's happened in my life that feels too big to try and think about in a rehearsal room. I bet it's not, I just haven't found the way to make it fit yet. It's sort of nice to have it at the back of my mind, but it can't stay there for ever.

I suppose one thing I should mention is that a significant birthday just passed, while the blog was sleeping. Not my 38th, which happened yesterday (despite all previous efforts to prevent it), but which I think we can safely say was wholly insignificant for all (un)concerned. But the fifth birthday of this blog, which, had we been paying attention, we might have celebrated (with a quiet lambada and a drunken fumble round the back of Vision Express) on May 13th. It's been on my mind for a while that once we got past the five year mark, I might start winding the blog down: it's started to feel a little repetitious -- almost everything I find myself wanting to say, I realise I've already said before, and usually better; and anyway it might be time to find a new format for the kind of thinking-space that I very much want to have as part of the rhythm of my work but which doesn't, after all, have to be a blog like this. I don't think I'll terminate it any time soon -- not, I should think, before the end of the year -- and I'm not anyway sure what to do. One thing I am doing is starting the huge but actually quite entertaining (in an indulgent sort of way) task of putting together a book -- a 'best of Thompson's' kind of affair -- which I hope might just sneak out in time for Christmas. I'm only a quarter of the way through exporting the posts into a workable document: but extrapolating from current statistics, it looks probable that the complete Thompson's (which this book will definitely not be, I promise) is now considerably longer than War and Peace -- or, for that matter, Infinite Jest. Which makes me feel a bit better about not being here much the last few weeks.

Right, well, I think that's us up to date, though I'll end on a few quick pointers towards things I'm currently enjoying. Favourite book of recent weeks has been Chris Kraus's Where Art Belongs, which is small (it's from Semiotext(e) of course) and initially seems modest and laid-back but opens out into something much more expansive as well as turning out to be the kind of book that's a really good companion: great train reading. I've also been hugely enjoying Raphael Zarka's On A Day With No Waves: A Chronicle of Skateboarding 1779-2009; Kit Wright's wonderful collected poems, Hoping It Might Be So -- no, I know, I'm not supposed to like Kit Wright, but I always have and I like him even more now: a truly wonderful composer of verse, modulating tonally with rare assurance, playing with rhyme in a contagiously delighted way, and -- when he dares to get serious -- more than capable of landing big emotional moments with enviable understatement: he literally, and unusually, can take the breath away; and George Hunka's gripping, really rather ravishing Word Made Flesh: Philosophy, Eros and Contemporary Tragic Drama. I think I had better wait until the traffic calms before I make a serious attempt on J.H. Prynne's George Herbert, 'Love [III]': A Discursive Commentary, which is sitting on my desk quite patiently and sensibly, and makes my heart beat faster even so.

As for music, I've been really excited about a couple of albums I've picked up in the past week or so: the new tUnE-yArDs, W H O K I L L, which is a gorgeous riot; and Feel It Break by Austra, which I heard playing in Fopp and immediately fell head-over-heels for. I also, after many years of searching, managed to track down a CD copy of Quark, the first album by the saxophone quartet Itchy Fingers who were briefly prominent in the British jazz scene in the early 90s: it's quite wonderful, really, not as dated as I feared and full of humour and insane virtuosity (and a couple of cameo appearances by Stanley Unwin, of all people); it's only made me hanker for other mainstream British jazz stuff from that late 80s / early 90s period when the Loose Tubes collective were being feted and Andy Sheppard and Courtney Pine were breaking through to a relatively big audience: it's a great shame so little of that stuff is available digitally or on CD.

Tonight's deeply-embedded earworm, though, with which I'll leave you (but handle with care, you might not want it stuck in your brain as it is in mine -- actually I'm quite enjoying it!), is Bob Morgan's exquisite library track 'Marguerite', which those of a similar vintage to the Controlling T. will perhaps dimly recognize as the tune that replaced Stanley Myers's 'Cavatina' as the restful soundtrack to the Gallery section of the tv programme Take Hart, some time in the early 80s I would guess. I don't suppose I'd heard it between about the age of thirteen and, well, today; a musical madeleine par excellence.

OK, well, you should probably expect another little period of dormancy, I'm afraid. If you miss me, why not come and see me do something in the real world instead? It's not necessarily wrong.