It's that man again: CG in February 2013
Photo: Richard Davenport
Hey yo, it's true, o best beloved: as true as a sandboy, as true as the "nose" on my "face": your long-lost pal Cap'n Beescope has returned! Yes dears, I'm back! Back! I'm back like Lazarus on a warmed-up bungee! I'm back like Vashti Bunyan astride a psilocybin boomerang! I'm back like childhood rickets in a time of austerity prosecuted entirely for reasons of ideological fixation and psychosexual derangement! Back like the proverbial bad penny -- or, adjusting for inflation according to the Consumer Price Index -- a MALIGN TUPPENCE. Thank you for your ecstasy, I'm very touched; I ask only that before you rush to celebratory action in honour of the Prodigal Thompson, you take account of my vegetarianism, now entering its 17th arse-boring year: perhaps rather than killing the fatted calf, you might instead try, say, throttling the engorged Quorn? -- And there we have it: the end of the first paragraph and already we've arrived at a far-fetched euphemism for masturbation. Did you miss me? Course you did. Course you did.
And my, how you've grown! It suits you. It really does. I love what you've done with your hair. In fact you're even lovelier than I remember you. Maybe absence really does make the heart grow fonder. When I think of how utterly nauseated I was by you little more than two years ago, how my heart sank every time I thought of having to write another 30,000 word post just to feed your beastly insatiable appetite, while you lounged around spilling out of your threadbare British Home Stores 'Tigerlily' kimono, cramming your mucky snackhole with BBQ Mini Cheddars and toggling neurotically between Thompson's, Reddit and ChubStarz.com -- well, let's just say I needed a little me-time. A little time to think things over. A full colonic irrigation of the etiolated soul, if you will.
But now I'm back! From outer space! You just walked in to find me here with that sad look upon my face! (Actually I'm not as sad as I look. It's just how my face settles in repose. You know, like Ringo Starr.) And, in all seriousness, it's nice to be with you again. Isn't it, Ronnie? "Yes it is." Slightly weird, to be honest. I'm sure this must be what it's like for Natalie Cassidy every time she returns to EastEnders. I mean I think I'm back here for keeps, or at least for long enough to take off my parka, but I don't think I'll know until I've done a half dozen posts and I feel like I'm back in the rhythm.
Good though to be re-entering the fray at a time when the theatre blogosphere feels quietly buzzy again, after a couple of years of unmistakeable doldrums. By 2011 it all seemed a bit depleted: a dwindling faux-community of tired commentators all jogging round the same block nattering to themselves about cramp while the real conversations seemed to be happening elsewhere. It doesn't feel that way at all right now, to me -- though that may be a trick of the light, I suppose: I might just be doing a better job of paying attention. But even so, the decisive impulse seems to be, simply, a deepening -- and/or broadening -- understanding that Twitter, in particular, won't satisfactorily contain many of the important conversations that need to be had in the sector: not just for nuance but for developed argument, it's necessary to migrate back to the longer-form, and perhaps the sense is stronger now that those conversations have to be had, that we have much to say to each other, much to learn and much to share; that we are not simply free-floating pixels in an atomised making-culture, whose principal mode of engagement is a cheerful, acquisitive networking behaviour of the sort that Twitter and Facebook foster so excellently: but that we need the means to express more powerfully and more ardently our sense of being with each other, of working not in secretive competition but in open concert and continuous dialogue. There's no doubt that Exeunt has pretty consistently been a marvellous centre of gravity, for all that it sometimes makes me want to throw hazelnuts at the cat; Andrew Haydon seems re-energised and better-than-ever over at Postcards from the Gods -- his output this past year has almost tripled that of 2011; Maddy Costa's States of Deliquescence is a consistently effulgent beacon of long-form critical practice, written with rare (and raw) intelligence, in the fullest sense of that word, and all the better for the extent to which Maddy has such a talent and a courage for taking work personally and processing it with a rigour that is as much romantic as intellectual; younger voices like Catherine Love, Megan Vaughan, Dan Hutton and Stewart Pringle have sung out with great distinction; above all I feel heartened by the way that blog spaces have continued to be important -- and, again, perhaps, seem more than a little revitalised of late -- as sites for the thinkings-aloud of fellow makers such as Hannah Nicklin, Stella Duffy, Hannah Silva, Dan Bye, Dan Rebellato, Alan Lane, Andy Field, Third Angel, Alex Swift, Scottee, and, perhaps most inspiringly for me from day to day, Jo Clifford. (Naturally, this invidious on-the-hoof register will certainly have overlooked very many excellent folks whose names I will eventually regret to have omitted.) Most recently, a very worthwhile conversation around how artists get paid for what they do was initiated by Bryony Kimmings on her blog, and pursued across a whole network of other blogs, in a way that neither Twitter or Facebook on the one hand nor live formats such as the 'open space' of Devoted & Disgruntled could quite have matched: and perhaps that, above all, makes me feel like the time is right for a reboot.
More locally, what I never quite said out loud -- on these pages, at least -- and thus a somewhat submerged reason for my having quit two years ago (though friends and Twitter followers will almost certainly know it), is that I needed a sabbatical in order to create space for a different writing project to happen: namely, a book, The Forest and the Field, for Oberon. Not only did I need to free up the time and energy to be able to take on something new, I was also looking to release myself from the grip of a voice that had come to feel overfamiliar here at Thompson's: insufferably prolix, strenuously performative, slightly arch sometimes, a bit camp here and there... -- well, you, dears, of all people, know the score. I thought putting the blog to sleep for a while might help me find a different style to work with: more concise, more direct, more penetrating, more accessible I suppose because less convoluted, altogether less wearisome in its demands on the reader: a voice I've found occasionally, for example amid the self-imposed constraints of 'House of the Future', my piece for the ICA's 'Some of the Futures' event a few years ago, of which I remain sort of proud, not least because so little I've written looks anything like it.
If I tell you that the manuscript I'll be delivering to Oberon in about a fortnight is almost exactly a year late and more than twice as long as it was supposed to be, you'll surmise, not incorrectly, that the economy I was seeking in the end eluded me. [Insert complicated non-Euclidean emoticon.] Tyring that brevity on for size felt, on the whole, unnatural -- certainly no less of a performance, and largely militating against fluency: not, I've come to realise, because I'm permanently doomed to keep reproducing a particular set of prosodic contortions, a kind of gurning textual rictus: but simply because I think my natural way of thinking about things is (a) hyperconnective, as it often is with cyclothymic people, and (b) musical: so whatever there is to say always seems to benefit from (a) being thought about in relation to four or nine other things, and (b) being layered over or run alongside those other things in as generously lubricated a way as possible. I do know how wearing this can be -- as anyone who, like me, has the unabridged audiobook of The Fry Chronicles on their iPod in case of insomnia, surely will -- but I'm at least a mite reassured to know it's less an affectation than an authentic and apparently inescapable signature.
More about the book in due course, I'm sure; anyway, this is a suitably roundabout way of saying: here we are, straightaway back to business as usual, and I hope that's all right with you. Before terribly long, Chris Goode & Company hopes to update its web site (which, according to one esteemed commentator, at present makes us look like we do children's theatre), and I suspect the blog will be at the heart of that new site, in which case perhaps it will change to fit its new surroundings; I'd certainly love, above all, for it to offer a home (or a holiday cottage) to voices other than my own -- as long as our opinions are essentially identical, ha ha. But for now, I trust we can sweep my two-year lost weekend under the shagpile and pick up where we left off.
Really, of course, I'd love to offer you a quick video montage of everything I've been up to in the past couple of years, like the sequence built around Victor's European vacation in The Rules of Attraction (probably the best thing about that rather dreary and baleful film, very much including James Van Der Beek doing edgy). But in the absence of such a breakneck highlights reel, I can't think of a way of making it palatable. What does, however, seem in order is a catch-up account of my 2013, in the spirit of year's-end retrogasmicity: which I shall follow with some thoughts about the theatre I've enjoyed and/or admired most in the past twelve months, and, by way of a nod to the Thompson's Furtive 50 of old, a list of the best records I came across this year. By which point you will be heartily sick of me all over again, and quietly counting down to the next intermission.
* * *
It's funny to think that, from the outside, Chris Goode & Company might well seem to have had rather a quiet year in 2013, following a first eighteen months of operation (starting mid-2011) in which we made five full shows (Where We Meet, Keep Breathing, GOD/HEAD, 9, and Monkey Bars), ran Open House a couple of times, toured The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, and so on.
This year, we just had one brand new show in circulation, and even that was to some extent a reworking of an earlier piece: the stage version of The Forest and the Field, which as you might remember started life as an academic paper several years ago, and became a scratch of a performance work in 2009 for my LEAN UPSTREAM season at Toynbee Studios and Camden People's Theatre; now, of course, it's about to be a full-length (to say the least!) book, which, had I delivered it on schedule, would have been on the merchandise stall as we toured the completely reworked theatre version this spring. Never mind: the performance version seemed to stand on its own feet. In truth I wasn't totally happy with what I ended up doing in the show -- it seemed a bit thickety in its verbals, even for a self-styled 'performance lecture': especially as I opted not to learn the text but to read it from a handheld script, which made it a slightly uphill slog towards a climax that never quite worked anyway. But there was lots to be pleased about: not least our decision, early in the process, not simply to remount the 2009 version and spend a bit more money on it, but to start over from nearly-scratch and rethink the structure and the content of the whole show from the bottom up. I was thrilled with the space we created, through the meeting of Naomi Dawson's design, Kristina Hjelm's lighting, and James Lewis's typically creative and enabling stage management -- I'm not sure I've ever offered an audience a more exciting and interesting room to walk into. Exciting too -- if inevitably headachey at times -- to work at last with a real cat in the space, a realization of something that's become kind of a talisman for my theatre thinking: a good corrective, in a way, to a too-easy conceptual figuration: in actuality, most of the cats (we had a different guest in each venue) were bored, recalcitrant and unhappy in varying degrees, and only our London cat, Antonio -- thoroughly accustomed to life in a noisy, arty Tottenham warehouse -- really performed his catness with the sort of stylish insouciance that I had imagined: so that's a good lesson, though not one (I think) that invalidates my interest in working with cats as co-performers.
Antonio the Cat, with sidekick Tom Ross-Williams
in The Forest and the Field (CG&Co, Ovalhouse)
Photo: Richard Davenport
For me, though, the best thing about The Forest and the Field was meeting and getting to know and to work with the splendid Tom Ross-Williams, who really brought the piece to life, acting multiple supporting roles, from Shakespeare's Miranda to O.J. Simpson, and providing a host of memorable moments as he moved, often naked, through this ever-shifting theatrical landscape. I don't imagine The Forest and the Field has a future life, though I'd have liked it to -- it's expensive to do, and laborious in terms of getting in and out, and ultimately, it's not the sort of show that a very large number of people want to see. But audiences everywhere we went were (more or less) appreciative, and, pleasingly, argumentative, often staying behind to carry on the conversation with Tom and me. And for my part, I fulfilled a longstanding ambition during the tour by playing the Arnolfini as part of Mayfest. Arnolfini was an incredibly formative venue in my early development as a proto-artist and budding homo during my teenage years in Bristol: it's where I first saw live art, where I first discovered Goat Island, and where -- in the still limitlessly engrossing bookshop -- I found out half of what I've ever really needed to know. So for a big fat sentimentalist like me, to tread those not-exactly-boards myself was quite something.
The other big above-the-radar project for the year as far as CG&Co goes was the autumn tour for Monkey Bars. The R&D week at the NT Studio for what eventually became Monkey Bars was one of the first things we ever did under the company name, in the early summer of 2011: so the story of that show threads more than any other through the story of the company so far. It's now easily my most-seen and best-reviewed show, and it's interesting to think of it speaking for the company, and by extension for me, in the way that it has. I suppose that's partly to say that I'm aware my work serves (or is exposed to the attention of) a lot of different constituencies -- the alternative-mainstream crowd, the live art audience, new writing people; queers and not, academics and not, fellow-travellers and not -- and I normally find myself sort of apologizing to at least some of those people about everything I make -- "this one isn't really for you" -- but I don't think I've ever done that with Monkey Bars: it seems to be able to meet almost everyone halfway. Some early critics in Edinburgh were absolutely tone-deaf to it -- memorably, British Theatre Guide's Philip Fisher, Human Capital partner at BDO and the distinguished author of Employee Share Schemes -- but that aside, it feels like a structure that turns appealingly to catch the light from a lot of different angles. (I promise I'd feel more abashed about saying so, except the basic concept of Monkey Bars came to me in what seemed a random flash of inspiration one evening as I walked hurriedly up the A4144, and of course -- as my dear Monkey pal Christian Roe is fond of saying -- we had the most extraordinary team of writers: so I hardly feel that its success is much of my doing, but only that I was the recipient of great good fortune. Genuinely. That's not just me being cute, for once.)
Anyway, it was a real pleasure to revisit Monkey Bars with none of the intense stress and
immoderate dread that accompanied the run-up to its premiere at the Traverse in 2012; the company was largely intact -- another piece of marvellous luck -- and the loss of Jacquetta May from the acting ensemble was delightfully mitigated by the happiness of welcoming in her stead Cathy Tyson, star of Mona Lisa and Band of Gold and ex-headmistress of Grange Hill. Cathy was gorgeous to work with and the rest of the cast took enormously good care of her as she felt her way in to the piece; in fact the whole project felt suffused with a kindness and hospitality that was infectious and enveloping, in a way that I hope is characteristic of how we like to do things, but isn't always easy to confect. Of the 33 shows in the tour I only saw a very few -- the first, at the lovely Brewhouse in Kendal; the last, at Arts Depot in Finchley; and a couple in between -- but I liked very much the direction in which the show, on its best nights, stretched: as ever with almost anything, it worked best when it was at its lightest, not asking for laughs or advertising the available insights, but simply allowing an audience to meet us in their own time and at their own temperature. Again, Monkey Bars probably really has come to an end now, unless Vegas calls: but there's already been one amateur production -- at the Playroom in Cambridge, a terrific little student venue where I acted for a week in 1993 (Presley in The Pitchfork Disney) and directed my play Weepie in 1997 -- and there's about to be another: so maybe its work is not yet complete.
Philip Bosworth, Christian Roe and Angela Clerkin in Monkey Bars
Photo: Richard Davenport
I guess for my amazing producer, the lovely Ric Watts, lumbered with the whole panoply of logistical nightmares, Monkey Bars has dominated CG&Co's year. For me, though, another project -- one that's so far only shyly peeped above the parapet as far as audiences are concerned -- has been the backbone of our 2013: that's Albemarle, a major show that we're developing for 2014/15. The scale and the ambitiousness of Albemarle have meant that we're having to build it slowly, block by block -- in a complete reverse of my normal working patterns. Generally, once I have an idea for a show, I like to turn it around quickly: there often aren't scratches or work-in-progress showings, there's maybe a week of private R&D at some point to just pilot a few basic ideas but on the whole I'd rather get a new piece made in an intense block of four or five weeks and then show it to audiences in a form I don't mind calling 'finished'. (Of course they never are 'finished', really -- or, when they are, they're fucked.) But that's not how it's going to work with Albemarle, and I must say I'm enjoying very much this slower, more dispersed process, and I think the piece will be rather the better for it.
Essentially, Albemarle is a dance piece layered over a theatre piece, or vice versa: and as it stands, the dance elements are being developed in Leeds, where the three core dancers, Akeim Buck, Pauline Mayers and Toke Strandby, are based: while the theatre show in which that dance will be embedded is, for the moment, being made in London, with three performers, Jo Clifford, Jeni Draper and Tom Ross-Williams. I'll perform in it too, and hopefully continue to co-direct with the brilliant Jamie Wood, and there are a couple of other performers, Jonny Liron and Heather Uprichard, who have been with us on the journey so far and perhaps will continue to be so. So it's a lovely room, wherever it finds itself, populated by truly talented, generous, warm, beautiful, courageous people.
The Albemarle year began for me with a week on my own at the NT Studio, trying to map some early thoughts; then in the spring we had a week at Theatre in the Mill in Bradford, starting to think about the dance element, and creating some space in which we could explore what it might mean for highly skilled dancers and complete non-dancers to try to work together in a single frame. Then in the summer CG&Co were invited to undertake a three-week residency at the brilliant (and officially 'Most Welcoming') Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter, where we did a lot of talking and curated/presented a busy programme of events in varying kinds of proximity to the concerns of Albemarle -- including, among many other happy and productive occurrences, the great joy of a rare week working with my longtime collaborator Theron Schmidt; a full-on few days hanging out with the amazing Jo Clifford and experiencing her extraordinary The Gospel According To Jesus, Queen of Heaven; and the pleasure and stimulation of a public reading and conversation shared with the poet and critic John Hall. I pulled a few things out of the back catalogue -- Infinite Lives, Hippo World Guest Book, and (because somebody foolishly dropped a hat) Schwitters's Ursonate, among others; I also got to perform a[ndy] smith's Commonwealth (which Tim Crouch later did, superbly, as a one-off for Open Court) and share with a tiny audience some of my work with Jonny Liron, and -- best of all -- sink a few of the transcendentally drinkable cocktails they named in honour of our residency: The Goode Life. (Vodka, honey bourbon, peach schnapps, and I can't remember the rest; in fact I can't remember much about those evenings at all, come to think of it.)
Jo Clifford in The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven
at the BikeShed Theatre, Exeter, as part of the CG&Co residency
Photo: Jonny Liron
Lining up the Goode Lifes at the BikeShed, & may the Lord have mercy
Then in the autumn we started work on Albemarle in (something that was more recognisable as) earnest, with two weeks' R&D in London on the theatre stuff, and a week with our friends at West Yorkshire Playhouse on the dance element: and in the weekend in between, the dance guys met the theatre guys for the first time -- so we were all in one room, just briefly, for what might be the only time until we get pretty close to unveiling the final show; and on the Sunday of that weekend, we invited in some other people for the first time, for an event called The Albemarle Gathering, at WYP. Those other people weren't an audience, exactly -- we didn't show anything from our work to date on Albemarle -- but just some friends and friends-of-friends whom we wanted to bring together to ask them to meet some of the ideas around the show, and to embark with them on a creative conversation through a mix of workshops, discussions and performances (and -- with dubious inevitability -- a screening of a vintage episode of Sesame Street). It was in some ways an odd occasion, in that the purpose of it wasn't entirely clear to everyone -- or I guess I'd say it was an event in the form of a question rather than an assertion -- but I got a lot out of it, and I think most folks did, one way or another.
Albemarle is, straight up and down, the most challenging thing I've ever done: not so much for its scale and its artistic aspirations, but because it demands of me -- and asks of everyone, I think -- an unusual degree of openness and vulnerability. (Unusual even for my work, I'd like to say, if that weren't so emetically self-regarding.) It's an extremely personal piece that's forming; and though it wants to be about Utopian politics and big widescreen questions about the structures and ethics of social organization, it's also very deeply and inescapably about grief, and about sex, and about bodies and movement and transition and personal change, and about loss, and the risk of loss, and the necessity of that risk. And it's about freedom -- a word I still feel queasy just typing -- and what we do with it, and how we imagine ourselves in relation to it, not just in some abstract sense, but in the careful and curious and uninhibited occupying of every moment we spend with each other. And for me, above all -- and here I will lose some of you to the sick bay, I'm sure, so give Matron a kiss from me -- it's about the ways in which we build walls and complicated marble-runs around ourselves so that we don't have to deal too directly with the radical disturbance of being loved and being forgiven. There is that somewhat cliched injunction that kicks around -- "Dance like there's nobody watching"; Albemarle is asking exactly that of all of us who are making it, in the knowledge that people are watching and will watch -- and must watch, if the thing is to make any sense in the world: and it will ask the same of everyone who sees the show in the end, and of the bigger 'us' who are trying to live together in a society that so often insists it can't and mustn't be changed. Ultimately I suppose it's a deeply challenging rehearsal room to be in because it requires that we live there, for real, right now, in the way that normally we vaguely dream of living with each other at some point in the future, beyond some personal blue horizon -- with (as close as we can get, each day, to) absolute truthfulness, total openness, complete nakedness; not an absence of fear, but an acknowledgement of it, and a willingness to run in company towards it. The finished show, whenever and wherever it finally emerges -- you can imagine this one's a hard, hard sell -- is going to be quite something: I think I can promise you that already.
Outside of CG&Co, there was lots more going on: most notably, I suppose, in collaborating with the pre-diabetic Artful Dodger of the British glamourwear scene, the thankfully unique Scottee, with whom I co-devised and directed The Worst Of Scottee, his first concerted solo foray into the legitimate theatre. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed doing this. I mean I can't tell you because then he'd know -- not that he'll read this, of course, he's much too busy drinking tequila out of Cleo Rocos's slingbacks, and anyway he's dyslexic, but he has a whole cohort of spaced-out goblins and faeries who do his bidding and monitor every media channel 24 hours a day just in case someone -- anyone -- has said something -- anything -- about him that he can retweet in his balls-out pursuit of absolute power, or failing which, Absolute Power, which will certainly be the title of his Saturday night game show on BBC1, when they finally give it to him. ...Actually, who cares? Do your worst, you goblin twats. I bloody loved working with Scottee. He and I go way back: when I became artistic director of Camden People's Theatre in 2001, I inherited a Young People's Theatre company whose absolute lynchpin was a fourteen-year-old (ish?) Scott Gallagher: cheeky, charming, confident and camp on the outside, and plainly trembling like a bunny vibrator turned up to 11 on the inside. During my tenure, Scott started getting seriously absorbed by club culture and by the time we both left CPT, and on the rare occasions that we'd bump into each other after that as he continued to develop his performance craft and pursue a horrifyingly viable career, I found him pretty intimidating: so, while I'd watched his progress with a lot of interest and some quasi-paternal pride, I wasn't at all sure, when the approach came late last year, that he and I would work very happily together. But the person I found waiting for me at the Roundhouse was someone completely else: warm, funny, sweet (even at his most excellently waspish), and at the same time incredibly focused, and ambitious not only for success but for excellence. We developed The Worst Of Scottee from his bare-bones idea across three periods of close collaboration, much of that time spent one-on-one, and it was consistently an incredibly stimulating and rewarding process. I think he might be the hardest-working artist I know, and I utterly adore that level of focus and productivity in people. He's also -- as anyone who's seen the show will know -- extraordinarily brave. All of which is true: and yet I should also record that much of our time was spent cackling with laughter and high on M&S biscuits. I was so thrilled when WoS did so well at Edinburgh, and I'm pleased for him that it's been a really great success on tour, too. (It comes into London in February, straight after a frankly indefensible jaunt to Melbourne.) I am slightly appalled at the gushiness of this paragraph, but what can I do? Scottee is simply the nicest, most talented, absolute fucking cunt I've ever worked with for the money.
Scottee at his Worst. Your taxes pay for this fucking mess.
The other solo performance I had a hand in this year -- or only a finger really, but a happy finger -- was Laura Jane Dean's genuinely extraordinary Head Hand Head, on which I worked as a mentor, i.e. one third flying doctor, two thirds hand-waving chum. Laura's piece, about her personal experience of living with OCD, was already mostly in place when I first joined her and her splendid director Daisy Orton at their rehearsal base in Faversham: it just needed a fresh eye on it, and a bit of a rejig, and some cheerleading -- and they both welcomed me so generously into their process that all of those roles were easy to undertake. I think the show that eventuated is a really remarkable piece of work: I can't think of a piece of theatre, except possibly Ridiculusmus's seminal Yes Yes Yes, that has more completely located me, as an audience member, inside someone else's head; Laura's ability to capture in the rhythms of her writing the characteristic patterns of her OCD is amazing, and consequently the show has a genuinely revelatory aspect that is fascinating and compelling -- and potentiated by the obvious precariousness of someone with OCD performing work that so clearly captures and recreates their own experience: the line between simulation and self-harm feels awesomely perilous sometimes, not least because Laura's performance foregrounds the fragility of her situation and only intermittently allows us also to see her resilience. I'm glad the piece has done so well, and been of use not only to general audiences but also to mental health service users in particular. In the coming year I'll be working with Laura again on the next stage of the same project, and I'm excited to see what emerges.
All right, nearly there: shall we just do a quick skim of the rest? -- Oh, can we, Chris, can we really? Yes, dears, we can. -- Chronologically? [laughs affectionately] Chronologically? Okay, sure. Why not. [ruffles your hair]
January's easy: I was super-ill and mostly in bed going "blee". Also the illness made me deaf for at least three weeks so when I wasn't in bed going "blee" I was out and about going "pardon?".
In February the estimable Nick Ridout invited me to take part in an event called 'Life After Work' at QMUL, talking about theatre-as-work, about the ways in which we see theatre as and not-as labour. I probably shouldn't have taken the gig really, I wanted to say yes to Nick but in the event I felt massively in-the-wrong-place; I don't think I said anything very useful and I certainly made one person very cross -- academic audiences are almost always intensely competitive and inordinately pious (or perhaps that's just how it seems to one who doesn't speak their language or drink their slushies) -- but if nothing else it was interesting to listen to fellow contributor Nina Power, a thinker I admire. Later on in the month I was part of a panel on queer theatre, following on from Emma Adams's supercool show Freakoid at Ovalhouse, and again I didn't feel all that comfortable being there: pronouncing on 'queer' is always a hiding to nothing, because half the audience think they and their friends own 'queer' (an error one is of course simultaneously committing oneself just by being on the panel and opening one's mouth), and the other half are deeply suspicious of, or uncomprehending of, queerness as a tactical position anyway. Where those two groups found common ground, interestingly, was in the idea that queerness, as nothing more than a strategy for reading or looking with, has no intrinsic relationship to sexuality. I can see the appeal in that airy hospitality but it seems to me a peculiarly Thatcherite construction of 'queer', and one I'm inclined to resist, though I suspect it's gaining ground among people who read a lot of cultural theory and/or grow a lot of beard.
February's big adventure, though, was This Is Tomorrow, at Warwick Arts Centre. It's like a week-long slow-mo (but more stuffed than Mr Creosote) speed date in which a group of raggle-taggle artists-o! meet an assortment of academics from different faculties of the University -- in our case, Physics, Manufacturing, Economics, Sociology, Politics and International Studies, and Mathematics. It was all properly mind-expanding (and a little bit manglesome) -- we began the week finding out how to make a computer out of fish and ended it playing four-dimensional noughts-and-crosses -- and the middle of the week was disquietingly inflected for me by what felt like a bunch of unacknowledged premises about what universities are for -- Warwick seems very like a business park in some ways, and it was only really in the Sociology and Politics departments, and some pockets of Mathematics, that the pressure to innovate seemed to feed something other than the advancement of sleek high-end capitalism. But it was incredibly valuable to be asked to engage with disciplines and worldviews that don't normally penetrate the bubble of the creative arts: and I got to hang out with an amiable bunch of artists and makers -- the amazing Charlotte Vincent, Alecky Blythe, Robin Rimbaud (a.k.a. Scanner -- of whom I've long been a big fan; lovely to meet him and find him far more naughty schoolboy than creepy aloof IDM/surveillance dude), Michelle Browne and the 'embedded' Matt Trueman, whose accounts of the week -- astonishingly, written mostly while the week itself was unfolding -- capture brilliantly its highs and not-so-muches. Lovely to spend some quality time too with Ed Collier and Paul Warwick of China Plate, who curate This is Tomorrow (and shape its arc rather cleverly, it turned out) and who kept injecting it, and us, with energy and curiosity when things inevitably flagged from time to time. In the coming year, CG&Co hopes to make a start with WAC on a project arising out of my own response to some of the ideas that came through in the week; whatever may happen to that project, the experience of This is Tomorrow has already been, voluminously, its own reward.
A fun, though bittersweet, gig at Easter was appearing as The Voice Of God in The Passion of the STK, the cheerfully outlandish farrago through which we bid goodbye to Stoke Newington International Airport, and it to us. STK was a fantastic space and a lovely project; I performed there many times, and saw loads of good things over the years. We miss it already, and it was hard to say farewell (though Lord knows the boys deserved a break). Unfortunately I couldn't get down to any of the performances of the Passion but photo documentation suggests that something very peculiar indeed took place, which is exactly as it should be. I can only really do two voices, so God ended up sounding like Wound Man (and, before him, Badger, from Wind in the Willows, May Week 1995), but that sweet dufferish quality seemed to suit the Almighty pretty well.
Gregor Henderson-Begg and Mamoru Iriguchi
The Passion of the STK
Photo: Paul Bennun
STK had also been our host venue for the first season of Thompson's Live, the podcast series with which I tried to keep the idea of this blog faintly alive during its hiatus. The second season, which started in March and ran through to July, was peripatetic, partly as a way of countering the inevitable complaints that the first series had been too London-centric. So it came on the road with CG&Co, wherever we happened to be, kicking off at CPT and taking in Bradford's Theatre in the Mill, the NT Studio, QMUL, TR2 in Plymouth, Pulse in Ipswich, the BikeShed in Exeter, and ending up at the Centre for Creative Collaboration under the aegis of RHUL. (Still a fair bit of London, then. Sorry.) Most of the episodes, I think, work pretty well, and one or two very well indeed, so it's worth exploring the archive if you didn't hear them as they came out (you can get at them via iTunes if you don't care for the Podbean site); I'd have loved to do more, but it's a time-consuming process and quietly expensive too, so I suspect that's the end of the line for now unless we can find some kind of funding for them.
In April CG&Co had a staggeringly intense week at the NT Studio working on The Witch of Edmonton, an extraordinary and seldom-performed Jacobean play of which I've been trying to mount a production for getting on for twenty years now (since I originally encountered it as a first-year undergraduate). It's an odd play, to say the least, thrilling but bonkers really, and hard to do effectively with fewer than twelve actors, which of course makes it prohibitively expensive. I've spent some time in the rehearsal room with it before, most promisingly a few years ago when Headlong were interested in supporting a production, though that in the end came to nothing (if getting massively fucked-over amounts to 'nothing', as perhaps it does in this sector); this time around, it was more pretext than text, in that I was interested to experiment with CG&Co's Open House format, which we'd tried as a standalone project a couple of times but never applied to work on an existing play. Essentially, Open House places a core company at the middle of the activity but then says that anybody else who wants to can come in and be a part of the process, in any way they like -- whether watching from the sidelines, or getting stuck in to some acting, or whatever mode of engagement takes their fancy from day to day. Approaching The Witch of Edmonton through that frame was, ultimately, unexpectedly, terrifying: there's something very liberatory about the Open House format, but what got liberated in this room, particularly mid-week, was scary stuff, the malign spirit of a frightening play, unleashed and freakily intoxicating. (I know this sounds like superstitious luvvie bullshit: but it really was very palpable in the room, especially in the confrontation of some of the actors with the horrible misogyny lurking in the play.) I think almost everyone wigged out at some point, pushed either by the play or by the demands of the Open House process (or both), and we lost one actor at the end of the first day, which cast a gloomy and complicating shadow over the remainder of the week. But, but, but. On the last day, we did a pretty full performance of the play -- ravishingly mutilated, adulterated, and not necessarily in the right order -- in which the core company were accompanied with several additional actors taking advantage of the open door: and I'm not sure I've ever seen anything that I've initiated that in the enacting has so closely and tantalizingly resembled the theatre I most want to be making. Indulgent I'm sure, but I found it utterly exhilarating. It felt dangerous, complex, unpredictable, but also composed, controlled, lucid: it was, I think, a richly textured performance of the play, but it was also a performance about the play, and about the week, and about us and what we needed from each other. For a while I incubated the hope that at some point before the end of the year we might be able to regroup and show some advance on these workings to an audience, but again, even on the measliest shoestring, I couldn't find a way to make the necessary ends meet. So, I don't suppose it'll ever happen now: apart from anything else, it feels like the time and the culture that that play could speak to with such authority is slightly slipping away; well, perhaps I feel that our week at the Studio has, at least temporarily, and at last, scratched that itch. I really want to record my thanks to the core company: Nigel Barrett, Lizzie Crarer, Tom Frankland, Wendy Hubbard, Sam Ladkin, Jonny Liron and Rick Warden: they were totally, totally the right people at the right time, and their intrepidity knocked me for seven-and-a-half.
A nice little thing in May... -- wait, wait, is this boring yet? It is, isn't it? I've turned in to one of those people who sends a round-robin letter with their Christmas card, basking in the warming certainty that it's important to you to know exactly when and where they bought their lawnmower: I'm sorry, I'm sorry, look, just skip bits, OK, or go and make a sandwich and come back later...
A nice little thing in May was a chat -- billed as a 'salon' but basically a really enjoyable chat -- about documentary and verbatim theatre at The Yard. I really like the Yard, I hope eventually between us Jay and I will find a way for me to do something there. In the meantime, this was an interesting conversation to be a part of, and there was a genuine sense of engagement around the table: and so my hasty back-of-envelope scribble seemed for once to amount to something helpful as we discussed matters arising. Particularly fascinating to hear Alecky talk about her process. I certainly don't feel I have any expertise in verbatim -- it's an area I've only dabbled in a handful of times -- but somehow the questions that arise feel really close to my deepest concerns, about what a 'voice' is on stage and who makes it and out of what stuff.
These days I seem to do, on average, one poetry reading a year, and this year's was the launch night of an evening called Benefits, curated by Steve Willey and Tom Bamford at (on that occasion) a joint called Power Lunches just south of Dalston. It was an amiable mess of an evening, and I suppose my reading was aligned both in terms of mess and (at a stretch) amiability: but it was really nice to be asked, and there was a lot to like in the scope of the event: not just in the accommodation of performance work, video material, improvised music and so on, but also in its attachment to grassroots activism -- especially, in this case, its links to House of Brag, the London Queer Social Centre. For some reason, the alternative theatre scene (in London, at least; I suspect regional mileage may vary) seems to find it harder than the poets do to forge explicitly those sorts of links or engage in that kind of dialogue and platform-sharing. Perhaps in theatre we can tend to view our own work too easily as being already, almost intrinsically, active with the activists, because what we do appears to have immediate social ramifications. I'm not so sure that that's necessarily true, or at least, that it's sufficient. Note to self, etc etc.
One surprising invitation in the summer came from Mark Ravenhill, who asked me if I'd talk to him in relation to his project Cakes and Finance for Open Court, in which the words of a number of playwrights -- Simon Stephens, Tim Crouch, April de Angelis, Philip Ridley and so on -- were collaged, creating a map of responses to his provocations around envisioning our 'dream theatre'. (Somehow by the time the piece emerged this had been rephrased as 'ideal theatre', which to me has rather different significations, but no matter.) It was amazing to be asked -- I'm hardly ever 'seen' (or so I think) as a 'playwright', especially by other playwrights -- and, given the company I was keeping, extremely flattering. Mark and I had an interesting if slightly stilted conversation for an hour or so -- I'd never properly talked to him before, and I dare say a more fluent dialogue emerged with those interviewees with whom he already shared some degree of being at-ease. So the conversation stayed fairly superficial, as if Mark's ear was cocked for soundbites rather than open to genuine dialogue; it's interesting too that the piece that emerged was widely described promotionally as "tongue-in-cheek", which is not a tonal element that was in any way implied in the invitation to participate, or explicit in that conversation: none of what I said was tongue-in-cheek, at any rate, though perhaps the pretensions of the likes of me deserve to be gently skewered from a platform at the Royal Court. Anyway, after an essentially congenial hour it was all over very quickly and weirdly abruptly -- "Howard Brenton's on his way up", said Mark, looking at his phone, and suddenly Howard Brenton was right there, and that was exactly that -- though, to be fair, I imagine maybe Mark might have said such florid things as "goodbye" and "thank you" had Howard Brenton not been on his way up. Whatevs, no? I left feeling mostly like the world of proper playwrights is yet another zone in which I am at best a licensed trespasser. I couldn't attend Cakes and Finance in person; a video of it can (or could) apparently be found online. But it was interesting to watch the piece refracted through Twitter responses and blog reviews; one common theme is that the whole exercise was a bit self-indulgent, amounting to little more than a conversation between Mark and the closed circle of "his mates". Well, I feel a lot of quite conflicted things about Mark Ravenhill, many of them exceedingly positive: but on the back of that one chinwag and the perfunctory email exchange that preceded it, I'm disinclined to mistake myself for his "mate", as it goes.
A particular ongoing pleasure this year has been the amount of time I've been lucky to spend in work rooms and adjacent cafes and pubs with Jamie Wood, one of my oldest friends in the business (and an Associate Artist with CG&Co), and someone whose continuing refinement and expansion of his craft is a constant inspiration and delight: the amount he's grown in stature as an artist and in quiet wisdom as a person over the past decade is really astonishing, and he's someone to whom I really look up, now more than ever: his lightness and his generosity are nothing less than beautiful to be around. So when I was asked to do a four-day 'masterclass' at the Junction in September, to coincide with the arrival of Monkey Bars in Cambridge, I instantly knew I wanted him to co-lead it with me -- and I can't think of a better decision I've made this year. The workshop we offered was structured around a three-part analysis of creative practice, which we called 'The Why Axis: depth, ground, elevation'. Weak pun aside, it felt like an interesting lens with which to ask our participant artists to reflect on their work and their reasons for making it: to consider a journey starting in depth (roots, inheritance, lineage, cultural background, life-story), moving through ground (the here-and-now of site- and time-specificity, ongoing conversations and collaborations, responsiveness, variation, modes of presence), and into elevation or altitude (aspiration, hope, development, looking to the future; broader themes, bigger aims, jazz hands). As ever with these things, a diverse group of artists who've signed up to be challenged or gently disturbed is not necessarily an easy room to manage, but I was really excited by some of the work that emerged, and the conversations that began (some of which are still continuing). In particular, what came through really strongly and sort of upsettingly is the extent to which the psyches and the creative imaginations of even really talented and successful artists are often nonetheless still being patrolled by the kinds of bullies and border guards that may have tormented them in the playground or belittled their ambitions as they started out: the almost visceral phobia of being seen, or having one's work perceived, as 'self-indulgent' or 'pretentious' or 'over-intellectual' or 'over-sharing' or 'narcissistic' or 'quasi-therapeutic'. (Or just plain old 'wanky'.) The picture looms of a shadowy audience shouting for "Less! Less!" All terribly English. I really want to try and do some more work on this self-denying bullshit with my peers, and perhaps especially with more emerging artists -- not that I'm wholly immune to those anxieties myself, but I think there's a difference between, on the one hand, being watchful in what you make and considering its public valency, and, on the other, feeling constrained or even paralysed in your sense of where as an artist you might want to go exploring, for fear that your bravery will be denigrated or your thoughtfulness lampooned as inherently risible.
As the year started to draw to a close I managed to gatecrash a great party: Calm Down, Dear -- A festival of feminism at CPT. I've never done this before: I wrote to Brian and Jenny and asked if they could squeeze me in, and to my great delight they found me a slot near the end of the season. So I took in one of my anthology performances -- as you might know, I've been doing these for years (since the first, Mixed Ape, with Jamie Wood in 2006), performing hour(ish)-long collations of marginal and otherwise overlooked performance texts, experimental poems, event scores, vocal outbursts, Fluxus bonbonbonbons, and so on: they're huge fun to do and it feels to me that they serve a useful purpose by reintroducing into the animation of live space a whole array of historically significant material that, by dint of its 'avant garde' [scare quotes] nature, tends to be consigned to the sin-bin of specialist study, the textbook, the archive, the vitrine -- where, of course, it's encountered as plain text with a polite white border around it and a noiseless scholarly aura holding it in place, rather than performed among people, with all the volatility and spit-flecks that implies. For CPT on this occasion I put together something called Weird Sisters, which followed a similar pattern to previous anthologies except that everything I read/performed was written (or in whatever way originated) by a woman -- going back exactly one hundred years to Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein, and coming right up to date with Dodie Bellamy and Hannah Silva. I crammed in a load of stuff and I have almost no memory of the performance itself, apart from a woozy adrenalin rush and two excruciating minutes of badly fucking up an extract from Façade that I'd done flawlessly in rehearsal all week. I do also remember the precarious headiness of the climax -- building adequately towards which had been the overriding task for the foregoing hour -- in which I did five minutes of Marina Abramovic's Freeing the Voice. (If you've just joined us, the name of that particular game is to scream continuously until you lose your voice.) With regard to the evening as a whole, there was lots to feel mildly anxious about -- as I acknowledged in my introduction to the performance -- in being a male performer making use of (appropriating, then?) the work of women artists; but I did think there was something pretty interesting, to me at least, in the context of that evening and that festival, in inviting an audience to watch, at the end, a man trying extremely hard to destroy (or, at least, temporarily decommission) his own voice. -- Anyway, people seemed to find the whole thing intriguing and useful, by and large, and I'm awfully glad to have been a part of such a worthwhile season. CPT is now, more than ever -- certainly more than I was ever able to make it -- an absolutely vital spot on the dial.
I do just want to mention in passing that November also saw the first amateur staging of my The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley -- which I was particularly pleased about because it was a secondary school production. Sadly I wasn't able to go and see the Year 11's at Nunnery Wood High School do their thing, but their teacher Mr Burford was kind enough to send me a programme and some photographs and, I have to say, it looks bloody great. They seem to have had a good time doing it: and, anyway, it's just incredible to me that it happened at all. I mean, at base, Wound Man and Shirley is about a love relationship between a gay fourteen-year-old boy and an eccentric middle-aged man with a predilection for teenagers and snazzy pants; for that to be allowed within ten miles of a school is, to someone like me who spent his own teenage years in the toxic shade of Section 28, completely mindblowing. I couldn't be more proud of the whole darn thing.
And that, I guess, brings us up to date: except that I feel like I can't finish this without saying something about the work that's particularly been on my mind this Christmas. A few days ago, I spent a bit of time putting together in book form some of the photographs that have emerged from my work with Jonny Liron over the past couple of years under our duo name Action one19 (A119 for short). Jonny and I have been working together in an exceptionally intense and exploratory partnership ever since our first collaboration, Hey Mathew in 2008; the work has only infrequently, though not I think insubstantially, reached an audience, but it's been a more-or-less constant (and, for both of us I think, constantly game-changing) dynamic in both our lives, especially behind the mostly closed doors of the Situation Room, Jonny's live/work space in South Tottenham. Right from the start a lot of the work has focused on developing 'personas' -- not quite characters, but provisional identities defined mostly by modalities of clothing and, out of that, different idiolects of movement, tonalities of presence, registers of interaction: it's delicate (though robust), painstaking, erotically agitated work, both compulsive and incredibly precise. Right from the start, we've made research work specifically for the video camera, but at the beginning of 2012 we started working with still images too, as a way of capturing and cataloguing these sometimes fleeting persona identities. I have zero prowess as a photographer, really, but it turns out that it's partly a numbers game -- we've often emerged from a couple of hours' work with a set of, say, 800 digital shots to look through, and there'll usually be a dozen, perhaps, that really work. So, two years on, it felt like a good time -- an important time -- to put some of those photographs together and see how they might speak to each other -- and outwards, to us, at a difficult moment.
I say 'difficult' because the context in which I've been looking back over those images is a fraught one, in that A119 hasn't really been operative since June. The reason for that is partly -- perhaps mostly -- circumstantial; but it's also at some level ideological -- sort of like the 'creative differences' that split bands apart, I guess, though it has felt more profound than that, I suppose because our work has always been entangled in our intimate friendship. (I suppose that must be true of many bands too.) It's not possible, I think, at this stage, to know for sure whether this hiatus is permanent, though I must admit I'm presently kind of low on hope: which is partly to say, I suppose, that I absolutely want the work -- and the multiple overlapping relationships around it and beneath it -- to continue; I feel like there's loads for us still to do, and, more pressurefully and to that extent unhelpfully, it certainly feels to me that I can't continue to pursue this trajectory of refinement in relation to this body of work without Jonny, who has always united a range of personal qualities and creative and political interests that make him an utterly unique artist in my experience: so if he steps decisively away, it's going to be a full-stop on what I take to be the most important chapter of my work as a maker -- and that's a catastrophic prospect, like for real, whether my therapist likes it or not :) I put the photobook together partly as a way of inviting Jonny to see, or to re-see, how incredibly gifted and talented he is -- underscoring which is I suppose a feeling (one of those annoying ones with no real base of evidence or integrity of argument to support it) that, while it's important that absolutely everyone has the opportunity to explore their own creative and artistic abilities, it's also important to recognize that some people really do have an unusual degree of talent, that, for better or worse, lifts them out of the ordinary: a gift for making or just for being in a certain way, an aptitude or a certain charisma: and I suppose for me such gifts confer a responsibility -- perhaps an unfair one, and anyway, as I say, this is one of those things one just believes without quite being able to say why, so perhaps it's all bobbins.
Jonny Liron in Action at the Situation Room, summer 2013
Needless to say, I don't for a moment want to pressurize Jonny or force his hand or ask him to do anything his heart's no longer in -- or to have to make any decisions while his principal experience of his body and intelligence in the world is a heavy burden of fatigue; for as long as it takes, my urgent desire to carry on doing this work, and my panic that it won't be possible, is my own business, and I hope I can do my best to be an honest broker as we continue to try and figure things out. And if putting together that book of photographs turns out to be a ritual of ending rather than (as I hope it might be) an encouragement to renewed action, then I at least want nothing to happen now to occlude the pride that I think we both ought to take in the work we've done together over the past few years. Not, I think, for nothing, even now, does Jonny have 'A119' tattooed on his lip: the company name, after all, derives from The West Wing, and we've always been propelled by a sense that our work has a certain altitude. In fact I suspect it might be exactly that presumption of altitude, or of significance of any kind (and the horse of white cis-male able-bodied privilege that it rides in on) that makes Jonny most suspicious right now. It's certainly true that this period is proving with terrible clarity that our enemies -- capitalism and (rather more my allergy than his) heteronormativity -- are not abstractions we're tussling with on some theoretical plane but ruinous, deleterious forces in our intimate lives, every fucking day. But, as somebody once wrote -- was it Goethe? Was it Hölderlin? -- "we're still so young, and we hope for more." (Aren't we? Don't we? Maybe not. Maybe I'm lost in a fantasy of my own overheated devising here.) And if we can't turn those forces against themselves, if we can't create cracks of resistance and defiance even in the midst of the onrush of life-denying shit, if our only response is retreat and hibernation, then we're straight-up-and-down doing the coalition's dirty work for it, and what in God's name are we for.
Well, I guess this is a knot for time to untie, but I won't lie to you, Banksters: I'm pretty heartbroken at what's become of us these last six months, and I hope things will somehow resolve, even if they can't resolve the way I want. We did some of our best work ever together in May and June: and then it all just stopped, as though in the middle of a sentence. It's strange for that to feel like it was so long ago. I keep looking back over the video, the photographs, trying in vain to see the moment where Jonny lost heart. As his friend I could hardly be more proud of him for doggedly trying to square the circle of life; as his collaborator, I feel, mostly, abandoned and bereft and, worst of all, confused: no matter how many times he reminds me, or I remind myself, that this is just a confluence of difficulties halfway beyond our control, I still lie awake at night wondering what I did wrong -- and, worse still, what the fuck I will do without him.
You know, if I'm honest -- and it seems to be getting to that end of the post, doesn't it -- it's been a tough year, folks. Being properly ill in January was incredibly depleting -- I've never been in that much pain before, for that long, and I think even after I was back on my feet, my emotional reaction in the aftermath of those few weeks was pretty raw, so that took a long while to settle down -- it was well into the spring before I was really myself again. After that, it was all about getting stretched: going back into therapy to try and get a handle on my eating disorder; struggling once again with the presence (or not) of God (or not); reconnecting with family, and with old long-lost pals; the death (not unexpected, but a bit faster than I'd anticipated) of a friend who loomed very large in a number of ways in my teenage years; and alongside all that, the making of Albemarle -- which has entailed a lot of dancing (yikes), a lot of body stuff, a lot of emotional openness, a lot of not being what my therapist calls "a brain in a jar" -- plus all this disorientingly hard and draining stuff with Jonny. And half way through all that, I turned 40: which is probably what this is all about, one way or another, at bottom. (I'm pleased to note nonetheless that at 40 I am still entertained in all the wrong ways by the phrase "at bottom". Also, by way of balance, let us note that starting in August I watched the whole of Dawson's Creek, all six seasons, back-to-back, some of which I have to say I really enjoyed, and all of which amounted to 106 hours of my life in which I didn't have to think about anything else, except I suppose for quite wanting to get gruesomely ass-reamed by Dawson's dad -- notwithstanding the fact that he kind of looks like Mitt Romney's secret gay brother).
Messy, huh. But I'm thinking that that was probably exactly the year I needed; after all, much of what was hard, I invited in, and almost all of the stuff I didn't ask for was just the life-and-death stuff that everybody deals with, the tax you pay for being someone with the capacity to fall in love and care about people and want a better life for everyone. I suppose the really scary thing is that -- no, dears, 2013 wasn't the quiet year it might have seemed to be, but -- the year ahead looks set to be twice as busy and twice as demanding. Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit not having a blog any more.
* * *
Well. That's quite enough of that devastating plain-text selfie (or deplatelfie, as the kids are all calling them). Let's stare at some other people for a bit. Somebody fire up 'Whole Lotta Love' (or 'Yellow Pearl', or 'The Wizard', according to your personal vintage): it's time for the charts:
Thompson's Top 20 Theatre* of 2013 (*almost entirely within the M25)
Heather Cassils photographed by Manuel Vason
1 Heather Cassils: Becoming an Image (SPILL at NT Studio)
2 Tim Crouch & a smith: what happens to hope at the end of the evening (Almeida)
3 Edward II, dir. Joe Hill-Gibbins (Olivier)
4 The TEAM: Mission Drift (NT Shed)
5 Jamie Wood: Beating McEnroe (Camden People's Theatre)
6 Peter McMaster: Wuthering Heights (BAC)
7 Kieran Hurley: Beats (Soho)
8 My Generation by Alice Nutter, dir. Max Webster (West Yorkshire Playhouse)
9 Chris Thorpe: There Has Possibly Been An Incident (Soho)
10 Secret Theatre: Show #1 (Lyric, Hammersmith)
11 Dan Canham / Augusto Corrieri / Pig Dyke Molly Dancers: Wild Card (Lilian Baylis)
12 Robert Wilson: John Cage: Lecture on Nothing (Barbican)
13 Nic Green: Fatherland (BAC)
14 J. Fergus Evans: My Heart is Hitch-Hiking Down Peachtree Street (Canada Water Culture Space)
15 Fabulous Beast: The Rite of Spring & Petrushka (Sadlers Wells)
16 One Of Us / Improbable: Beauty and the Beast (Young Vic)
17 Angela Clerkin / Improbable: The Bear (Ovalhouse)
18 Karen Christopher & Sophie Grodin: Control Signal (Chelsea Theatre)
19 Ross Sutherland: Stand By For Tape Back-Up (Rosemary Branch)
20 A Thousand Miles of History by & dir. Harold Finley (Bussey Building)
Peter McMaster's Wuthering Heights
First thing to say is, lots of friends represented here, which adds a whole layer of greebles to the basic-cable invidiousness: but that's in the nature of the exercise, and a very weirdly distorted list this would be if I expunged from it everyone I ever had a drink with in the Traverse bar or traded dog pics with on Twitter. I have omitted a couple of really wonderful pieces of work by friends that I saw this year as part of events that I myself curated -- that feels like it crosses the line -- but I think I can still at least say thanks to them: that is, to Theron Schmidt for Some People Will Do Anything To Keep Themselves From Being Moved, and to Jo Clifford for The Gospel According to Jesus, Queen of Heaven, both of which were part of the residency line-up at the BikeShed.
It must seem -- and of course, also, it really is -- sort of abhorrent to rank artworks like this: even comparing the rantipole chutzpah of Edward II at the National with Fergus Evans handing out peaches in a janitorial supplies cupboard round the back of Canada Water library is inherently ridiculous, and I hope I do it not because it gives me a warm glow inside to assert that, say, Wuthering Heights was one metric unit of aceness better than Beats, but because thinking carefully through these orderings, rather than flinging twenty excellent shows at the wall in no particular order (a perfectly legitimate alternative), opens up for me a space in which to examine for myself a whole bunch of questions to do with the qualities and tendencies that I most value in other people's theatre, and perhaps by extension in my own.
Sometimes, what my consideration of those questions throws up is deeply surprising. For example, one of the things that I really admire about Becoming an Image is that it's, to my mind, basically perfect. That is, it's a single capsule-like idea, smart and suggestive in its conceptualization, and faultless in its execution across the piece's thirty-minute duration. Compare and contrast that, then, with something like Mission Drift, which is a bundle of what sometimes seems like all the ideas, marshalled and thrillingly set in Brownian-esque motion by a whole bunch of incredibly smart makers, but nowhere near perfect -- and all the better for it. I think I'm the sort of person who likes that flawed complexity much more: and yet Becoming an Image got under my skin, and stayed there -- or, actually, in this case, remained imprinted on my retinas -- and in fact I feel it's still with me, almost every day: whereas mostly I've put Mission Drift down now, perhaps with the exception of a couple of the songs which still pop into my head from time to time.
Somewhere in between those two poles is Peter McMaster's Wuthering Heights, which I certainly liked a lot at the time of seeing it, but which has grown in my estimation ever since, as I worried away at it, wondered at its movements, fretted over some of its choices; the things that felt most wrong with it have become the things that move me most about it. (Btw, naughty to say so about such an out-and-out ensemble work but Thom Scullion's was the best performance of the year for me: and, again, that's a feeling that's deepened across time, and mostly because of everything about it that I felt fretful about at the time.) Wuthering Heights had something of the promiscuity and compendiousness of Mission Drift in its material character and its organizing intelligence, but also a spareness, a lack of adornment, that felt closer to the economical live-art precision of Cassils's work.
I have to take my hat off -- and my shoes, of course -- to Tim Crouch and Andy Smith: to my mind, what happens to hope... is Tim's best show so far (perhaps excluding from that judgement The Author, of which I don't think I can any longer pretend a measured assessment): others around me seemed to think it was minor Crouch, vamp-till-ready Crouch: and certainly it has an unassuming, impromptu-like nature, a quality of easy ventilation and quiet luminousness. What Tim's always supremely good at -- better than anyone, really -- is setting something up and then just letting it play itself out, moving methodically and truthfully through its ramifications, like an equation solving itself from the inside. And he's also amazingly good at something I often strive for myself but seldom achieve with such assurance, which is about setting something up at a formal level which, by working through its formal logic, creates -- compels -- the movement in the content, so you have the sense of the narrative laid gently over the top of the piece, almost like a grid against which you can check the plate shifts taking place at the structural level. At first glance this can appear to establish a situation in which the work is 'about' theatre -- and of course it is, in a way: but it's 'about' theatre at that formal level rather than the level of content, which means it's also directly and ineluctably about what's happening to you in the moment of your encounter with the work: so it can achieve an intimacy with its audience that can feel unsettlingly close, almost telepathic. Like some noise musicians seem to be -- or, in some cases, really are -- concertedly choreographing a vibratory dance for your skeleton and your internal organs, Tim and Andy's work seems to me to create tensions and releases directly in the body of the beholder, sensations which are only then routed through the analytical mind to become an intelligible argument. Quite slowly and gently and unhistrionically, it works like a car accident or like falling downstairs: the span of its happening is strangely quiet and un-'dramatic', and only in arrear do you start to establish a perceptually discriminating relationship with it; and only then does the adrenalin start to flow: and then it can still be disturbing your sleep a fortnight later.
Don't worry, dears, I'm not going to write at length about everything on the list -- or, in fact, about anything else. I'll just say this before I stop: Secret Theatre at the Lyric is one of the reasons I'm reactivating this blog. There's been so much to say, and nowhere to say it. (Luckily, in the end, I got to say a fair bit of it to Simon Stephens over coffee, and he was sort of bewilderingly gracious about some of my more critical observations, meaning that I won't die of unexpressed sentiments transmogrifying into colon cancer. At least, not this time.)
Oh, and Jamie Wood -- whose apparently fearless navigation of Beating McEnroe was, and is, one of the great performances I've ever seen in fringe theatre -- is making a show about Yoko Ono. There's literally nothing I'm looking forward to in 2014 more than that.
Meanwhile, in the house next door:
Thompson's Top 30 Albums of 2013
1 Richard Dawson The Glass Trunk [Richie's Own Label]
2 Jenny Hval Innocence is Kinky [Rune Grammofon]
3 James Blake Overgrown [Atlas]
4 Apparat Krieg und Frieden [Mute]
5 Sam Amidon Bright Sunny South [Nonesuch]
6 Time is a Mountain Time is a Mountain [Hapna]
7 Matana Roberts Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile [Constellation]
8 My Bloody Valentine MBV [MBV Records]
9 Christoph Schiller Variations [Another Timbre]
10 Hanno Leichtmann Minimal Studies [Mikrotron]
11 Javier Carmona Chamota [CRAM]
12 Nils Frahm Spaces [Erased Tapes]
13 Boards of Canada Tomorrow's Harvest [Warp]
14 Kanye West Yeezus [Def Jam]
15 These New Puritans Field of Reeds [Infectious Music]
16 Colleen The Weighing of the Heart [Second Language]
17 Atoms for Peace AMOK [XL Recordings]
18 M.I.A. Matangi [Interscope]
19 Richard Youngs Summer Through My Mind [Ba Da Bing]
20 David Bowie The Next Day [ISO Records / Columbia]
21 Pearl Jam Lightning Bolt [Monkeywrench / Republic]
22 Richard Buckner Surrounded [Merge]
23 Connan Mockasin Caramel [Phantasy Sound]
24 ARP More [Smalltown Supersound]
25 Ingrid Lee Mouth to Mouth [Another Timbre]
26 Midlake Antiphon [Bella Union]
27 Christian Wallumrød Outstairs [ECM]
28 Chvrches The Bones of What You Believe [Virgin]
29 Aspen Michael Taylor Middle of Nowhere (Deluxe Reverb Edition) [Kiddiepunk]
30 Prefab Sprout Crimson/Red [Icebreaker]
The amount of new music coming in to my life has greatly diminished since I was last here. Even a top 30 albums list feels like pushing it when I only heard maybe 70-odd in total; not that long ago, I was routinely acquiring five or six hundred new albums in a year. I guess 'acquiring' is the word: most of those would only get listened to once or twice, and possibly skipped through at that, and the exercise came to feel like being an industrial fishing trawler rather than an enthusiastic amateur angler for previously unheard sounds. That's not to say I'm exactly happy with the new status quo -- good though it may have been for me to downscale, it was the closure of so many file-sharing sites, and, now, my ISP having blocked my access to most of the rest (I mean what the absolutely fuck is that?), that forced my hand. Most of the really good music blogs have gone as a consequence of these restrictive measures, so I'm simply being exposed to much less from week to week, and certainly far less by artists whose names aren't already known to me, which I think is a shame. I suppose I'm buying slightly more from legitimate outlets now, and I've certainly reverted to liking and wanting CDs, wanting packaging and sleeve art and liner notes, and I guess that's the desired effect -- and I'm glad if more musicians are able to earn a living (or part of one) as a result of the crackdown. But I do miss that bit of online culture where someone keeping a blog under a (usually incredibly fey) pseudonym could share with me their enthusiasm for some Norwegian lesbian alt.folk artist or scary Mexican drone-monger, and I could easily take a punt, and maybe end up falling equally in love with the same musician -- and, not uncommonly, buy their whole back catalogue as a result, as well as passing the message on in a forum like this. But, I can't deny that I've engaged more closely with what I've heard this year simply as a function of there being less of it, and I'm sure that's a good thing too.
I don't think I'll say anything really at all about these thirty, except that discovering the work of Richard Dawson -- after a chance encounter with a single track from The Glass Trunk during a reproachably rare listen to Radio 3's generally brilliant 'Late Junction' -- is one of the most serendipitous things that have happened to me in the past year. His gig at Cafe OTO in August, supporting Michael Chapman, was one of the very best things I've ever seen there: he is a totally captivating and, as far as I can tell, utterly unique performer, and his voice has cut through the murk of my year like an Atolla jellyfish freaking out in the depths of the darkest oceans.
Also: if you haven't made its acquaintance yet -- or even if you have: M.I.A.'s 'Bad Girls' is just astounding.
For all of which, perhaps my longest-abiding memory of musical awesomeness in 2013 will turn out to be the afternoon when I was rehearsing with Scottee downstairs at the Roundhouse while Atoms for Peace were soundchecking upstairs. Fuckity boy-oh-boy, did they mean business.
* * *
And I think that's probably enough for a returning stab in the half-familiar dark.
Almost inevitably, this first instalment of the new volume ends with an apology in doleful expectation that it might be a couple of weeks before I can get back here. I really can't get this blog up-and-running again in earnest until the book that I was supposed to write while you were sleeping has been delivered to its patient overlords. So I'm going to go and do that, mostly.
In the meantime, thank you so much for coming back to me (or showing up for the first time, if you're new here); my best wishes for a happy, productive and -- oh, let's go for broke -- revolutionary 2014. ...Go on, go on, you know you want to. xx