Sunday, May 28, 2006

My first slightly tipsy post

Actually, given the number of tries I had to have at spelling 'slightly', maybe a bit more than slightly.

It's been my birthday all day today and I blew most of it on the unheroic business of putting off all the work I was supposed to be doing. In fact at the point that May 26th (not my birthday) gave way to the 27th (no longer not my birthday) I was, hem hem, tidying my iPod. This may be some indication of how old I now am, that as Friday night became Saturday morning, I was at home on my own, finally facing up to the fact that I don't really want a load of Zoviet*France on my iPod. (Principally on the -- I have to say -- not unreasonable grounds that I mostly listen to my iPod on the train or the bus, and most Zoviet*France tracks sound pretty much identical to the train and the bus. If I mostly listened to my iPod at the supermarket I'd erase all the Shakatak. Bada bing bada boom.) Also I needed to free up some space for a few new bits and pieces I wanted to stick on there. I really like the new Paul Simon album: some of Eno's influence is a bit fudgy and Simon's voice is finally getting a little coarser, but it all sounds really awake, and 'Father and Daughter' is just a drop-dead gorgeous song. And I've also really been enjoying Ghostface Killah's Fishscale - ran into a track from it at Fluxblog a few weeks ago. It's a little silly but what else is spring for?

I've worked out that the way to approach the new Scott Walker album is to listen to one track per day. Not including the first track, which just absolutely should not be listened to, period. It's the first song I've heard in a while that's actually made me feel physically ill. There's something about the guitar figure (it's too weedy to call a riff) that just sounds to me like a musical encapsulation of demonic evil.

Anyway. Yes. Birthday. Well, not much else, during the day at least. Had some chocolate milk and a nap. Which I'd like to claim was an ageing-provoked attempt to connect with my inner four-year-old: except that connection's pretty much always running in the background. ...Odd, vertiginous feeling, suddenly, thinking that 29 years ago today I really did turn four years old. I had a toy fire engine with a working hose: with which, in a characteristically gracious gesture, I squirted the postman who came to deliver my cards.

Best -- and in fact, let's be honest, only -- toy to come my way today is something called a Buddha machine. Looks like these little fellers have been around for a while but it's all new on me. Seems like it could be just the ticket.

Nice evening, good friends, excellent Thai food, a little light tipsification; and finally, thanks to Gemma, I have a copy of Artaud's The Theatre and its Double, which I'm ashamed to say I've never read. And Jamie gave me a hat to replace the last one he bought me, which I, appallingly, lost within a week and which said something like TOXIC POO on the front. (The new one has some kind of insigne on the back, but it's too street-stylised to be legible, so I'm going to assume it's something cheery and insouciant and altogether less poo-related.)

All quite encouraging, then, on the whole: which is good, because I've got another birthday celebration looming already... On September 26th I turn 33-and-a-third, and if that's not a cue for a party, I don't know what is.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Seven year itch

Well, good. I made it. Last night was my final performance in the present run of We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg!, which I've been taking round people's homes for the past ten weeks. I know ten weeks isn't much of a run compared to Blood Brothers - which of course dates back to the early fifteenth century (in fact, surprisingly, it was only as recently as 1922 that the title was updated from Bloud-Brethren) - but it's the longest haul I've ever done of any show: and given that (a) my attention span, particularly when I'm performing, is considerably shorter than, say, this sentence; and (b) I never meant to make Quirkafleeg in the first place, it's rum to have been doing it so long, and nice to have a break for a bit. There are more performances of it to come in a while - I'm doing the Cork Midsummer Festival again, happily, and also I have to reschedule a handful of shows that I cancelled due to illness and misc shenaniganisme. It's possible that in fact it might have, o, seven shades of afterlife. If it does, I'm thinking I might remake it for two people. Flying completely solo is horrible. Audiences are (on the whole) very nice, but I find that, post-performance, I want to share with somebody the pleasantness of shows that have gone well, as much as have someone to sob all over When Things Go Wrong.

Performing in people's houses is a huge deal and one I never really get used to. The intimacy of it is almost always a delight, though goodness knows, proximity and intimacy don't always go hand-in-hand. And I love the idea that people's living space is a little bit (re-)charged by it, if only for a day or two. But I think it also makes me a bit cautious. I wonder whether the performances are a little bit soft. And it's odd that, after ten weeks, these questions, and most of the others I started out with, are still unanswered. I suppose that's a good thing, really.

Actually the strongest and most compelling consequence of doing Quirkafleeg! has been an intense sharpening of my appetite to do the anti-Quirkafleeg! at the earliest possible opportunity. It feels like ages since I made a large group show, or a piece that dared to be really reckless or furious or whatever the unpejorative antithesis of gentle is. In a way, the experience of the past couple of years has been a replay of the years between leaving university and doing my first piece in London in '99. After I graduated I found that the work I was making was getting smaller and smaller: Weepie, in '96, was two actors and two chairs; Puckerlips, the following year, was two actors (one silent throughout) and one stool. Practical constraints were starting to impinge for the first time, as if the walls were closing in: clearly my next piece would be for a miming homunculus sitting on the end of a pole. (At the time, not quite the appealing prospect it now seems.) And that's why I made The Consolations as my first piece with Signal to Noise in '99. Rip it up and start again. Seven actors, two and a half hours, a huge theatre, an almost terminal haemorrhage of money. Probably only about fifty people saw it during the weeklong run. But - I was saying this to Theron yesterday - it's hard to think of a piece I've made since then that was more like the work I really want to be making. And that's soon going to be seven years ago. So maybe the piece I wrote for the Guardian a few months ago about the seven year cycles that theatre seems to run in might turn out to have been a message to myself more than anything.

The big obstacle, of course, is that seven years ago, we were all hungry and unsettled enough to work for five months on no money to make The Consolations. I'm not sure what response the same proposal would receive now from the same (sorts of) actors: though, to be fair, a couple of preliminary soundings have been quite encouraging... I wonder if maybe to work for a year on a piece, in snatched evenings and weekends, with no money and much blagging, and allowing the structure and content of the piece to reflect the conditions of its making, might be quite an interesting thing to try and undertake at this stage. Certainly the prospects of making something (relatively) largescale with the support of a funding body or a funded partner organization seem to be, if anything, receding. It's odd, though, to be regressing to the point where I even feel a little bit envious of those colleagues who have stuck with the pattern of working in a non-theatrical day job and then making stuff happen in their spare time. I'm sure it's uncomfortable for them, as it was for me; but, it turns out, freelancing doesn't seem to be the answer either. At least not in London. But my attachment to London feels, right now, absolute.

Anyway, it was interesting, in the light of these thoughts, to see Les Ballets C de la B's VSPRS at Sadler's Wells in the week; and also, earlier, the new Petra's Pulse show Donkey Shadow in the Sprint Festival at my old gaff CPT.

I liked VSPRS much more than the company's previous Alain Platel piece, Wolf, but it still didn't excite or move or inspire me in the way that Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's gobsmacking pieces for the company did in recent years. There's something arch about Platel, what might lazily be called an ironic detachment, so that even when the piece shifts into more directly emotional territory towards the end, the abruptness of the tonal switch seems itself a bit coolly ludic. Both Platel and Cherkaoui seem to cherish the idiosyncrasy of the diverse individuals that perform the work, but I wonder if only Cherkaoui is willing them to signify beyond their anomalousness into some kind of civic coherence. In a way, it was a good lesson: that putting large diverse groups on stage isn't in itself political. But that just makes me more frustrated, because it can have political ramifications, and in a way it takes more effort to lock those effects down than to let them out.

Man, I wish I'd read the promo material before I saw the piece. I hadn't realised quite how much the Monteverdi Vespers were going to be reworked (pretty unattractively on the whole); and I didn't know that Platel had drawn so much on early film footage of patients in psychiatric care. That does seem a bit worn out now, to me, the raiding of tics and neurotic and compulsive behaviours by contemporary choreographers looking for wonky new shapes to throw. Still, there were some good moments, I'm glad I saw it; I wouldn't have missed for anything the eye-boggling salvos of Ross McCormack, or the brilliantly unstable presence of Iona Kewney (the substitute, I guess, for the poor spun-out doggies in Wolf).

But I'm pretty sure I'll remember Donkey Shadow for longer. It's difficult to say much, because Selina and Jamie are longtime friends of mine and, since Escapology, collaborators, and I had a hand (or two fingers, more accurately) in the sound design. But I really thought it was an exceptional piece: not quite what I expected, though in some ways a plainly logical development from their previous work. The images were wonderfully strong, the performances were incredibly supple and delicate, the tone was kindly but robust and able to reach towards darkness and difficulty. There were problems with it, transitional longeurs in particular (they think in discrete scenes, like I do, not in fluid throughlines), practical boinks and botched decisions. But all of these things seemed simply and unaffectedly part of the work, not antagonistic to it but merely features of it; in other words (I suppose), you fall in love with them and their aspirations for you, and it's therefore unnecessary to like or agree with everything they do. We are all just people in a room, huddled together. (Especially at CPT: cripes, was it always that cramped?)

& it was nearly as long as VSPRS too, but it felt shorter. Actually, no, it didn't, it just messed up my time sensors right from the get-go. Selina's astounding Butoh-inflected solo at the end of the piece, had it not been soundtracked, might well have dismantled my temporal sense for good. -- & the other great thing (and Jamie's unbelievably good at this, I already knew, but suddenly it was really load-bearing) is that everything they have on stage with them is an actor too, every object, every bit of clothing. I'm not sure how they do that. ...It suddenly transports me back to the end of a rehearsal back in the early days with Unlimited Theatre, with the blessed Paul Warwick and me on the stage of the studio at Leeds Metropolitan, trying to work out how to make a paper cup more interesting than the actor holding it...

All of this gratuitous BLAH makes me think that when I shot my mouth off to The Times last weekend about hating most theatre, I was talking in foolish arm-waving shorthand. What I hate is the frustration that rises out of the nearliness of most theatre. How nearly it comes to being as life-changing as it could be; and how often it just misses. And how stranded, how powerless, one feels, even as a fellow practitioner, to do very much about it. How if I were braver and cleverer and more imaginative, it probably wouldn't make enough of a difference. How theatre can't quite close the gap because, to even (and especially) its most fearless and dedicated artists, it is the gap.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Separated at girth...

Brand spanking new on the worldwise interwebulator: this charming picture of moi looking uncannily like John McCririck, the emetically unprepossessing racing commentator and sometime confidante of Prof Germaine Greer. That black shirt obviously isn't quite as flattering as I always thought it was. Or: it's precisely as flattering as I always thought it was, and the circumstances of my physical being are, in reality, vastly worse.

(More soon, d.v., on the event at which the photo was taken.)

"OK, here's my thing..."

So I just watched the final episode of The West Wing. Think I'm too tired right now to feel anything very acutely, but I'm aware nonetheless that this is quite a significant moment for me. I've adopted a slightly tongue-in-cheek tone talking about it (to some people, anyway) but I honestly feel like The West Wing has been, along with The Simpsons, one of the great works of popular art to emerge in recent years. I'm writing as someone who doesn't (any longer) have a tv, so I don't see much of what's going on, maybe it's absurd of me to make pronouncements about 'popular art', is something anyway 'popular' just because it's on tv?, I don't know. But the quality and dynamism of the craftsmanship, in the writing, the directing, the performances, has been quite exceptional -- and I'll miss it.

Aaron Sorkin's writing in the early seasons was particularly extraordinary -- not many American writers produce dialogue with that kind of high-strung musicality. Tony Kushner, yes; Adriano Shaplin, in a somewhat different neck of the woods, yes, absolutely. In the novel, Tom Spanbauer. (Just got a hold of Now Is The Hour -- will try to write about it here soon. All looks very promising.) But my guess is, none of the above have watched The Philadelphia Story as often as Sorkin, which is in itself an indicator of his greatness. It's funny, looking back on those early episodes on DVD -- as I often have, late on weekday evenings, just to pass the time between new shows -- how mannered the dialogue is, how stilted in some ways. How everyone talks like Sorkin, I guess. "OK, here's my thing." And that curious phase he went through of having people speak in bullet-points. They'd say things like: "If you proceed with that line of action, they're going to respond in the following ways: ..." And you'd sort of hear the colon. And then there'd be a list. I don't know whether it was a conscious PowerPointy stylisation, but lots of characters started doing it.

In my most recent (though not now very recent) book of poems, No Son House, there's an odd fish of a poem about Aaron Sorkin, written around the time that his whole narcotics fracas was exercising everybody; I'm extremely interested in how psychoactive drugs affect language use, in the chemical and hormonal influences on characteristic prosody. It's not a successful poem, really, but it's got some of the eerie overpressured quality I was reaching for. In particular I'd been thinking a lot about the scene at the end of episode 19 in the first season (yup, I'm afraid I'm that much of a fanatic...), the big argument that blows up between Bartlet and McGarry. Seems to me that exchange is -- forgive the untimely cliche -- a masterclass in screen writing and acting, a two-character dialogue to file right alongside the iconic campfire scene in My Own Private Idaho or the excruciatingly brilliant scene between Jeffrey Wright and Christopher Walken in Basquiat. The last line of the poem quotes a line of McGarry's (speaking of Charlie Young): "I'm going where I want [to] because a man stands up." (The "to" is in brackets there because I cut it from the poem -- rhythmically it was too expansive.) Like so much of Sorkin's writing -- the mark of a truly risky writer, I suppose -- it's faintly preposterous out of context, but deeply and persuasively moving when it occurs in the scene.

Why am I writing all this? I don't know, I just enjoy thinking about The West Wing, I can't think of any other tv programme I'd write about like this, except possibly The Muppet Show. There was a letter to one of the newspapers a few weeks ago, the Guardian I suppose, calling WW "fascistic". That's lodged in my mind, and I don't know quite what to do with it; it's not easy to dismiss out of hand. It's somewhat connected with the hawkishness (which I did sometimes find uncomfortable, the near-fetishistic regard for military hardware above all), but it's more about the block deployment of specialised language. Which I won't get into now, or I'll be up all night.

Anyway, I won't say too much about the last episode because most folks in the UK won't see it for another few weeks. But I'm interested in how low-key it was, after a fairly haphazard final season; once the result of the Presidential election was determined, the whole series kind of unravelled. But of course that was perfect. Everything, looking back, the doldrums of season 4, the sniping in season 5, just fit so well with the plausible dynamic of a two-term administration.

And the funeral of You-Know-Who a few weeks back was just about the saddest thing I've ever seen on screen. (Unless we're going to count the death of Jen in Dawson's Creek: but we're not, are we?, that would irretrievably ruin my rep as a man of more-or-less awesome discernment and integrity. Though it would be true to say that I expelled so much mucus during death-of-Jen that I was maybe three or four pounds lighter at the end of the show.)

Anyway. Enough. Exhausting day. Did very little, but after an extremely stimulating and frustrating weekend, with a fair few personal ups and downs in it too, I spent all day today feeling really turned on creatively. I've been feeling a bit pent-up of late about various projects that I want to be working on but can't practically make happen, and various other projects that I don't really want to be working on but which are paying the bills. Nice set of problems to have, I know, but today I was almost nauseous with the sense of wanting to work as a matter of the greatest urgency on the things I most want to be doing. I couldn't concentrate on anything, couldn't sit still. Bought a load of books even though at home there's a pile of unread stuff, a tower of paperbacks that's already reached the height of the sunflower that I wear sticking out of the top of my top hat. I'm pleased with today's haul -- Brecht, Perec, Cixous, Alec Finlay... -- but I can only read two sentences of anything at a time before I get an itchy brain and I have to do something else. What I really felt the need to do today was sit by the river for a while and just think. Or possibly not even that. Just flatline. Maybe tomorrow...?

In the meantime: if you're reading this, Mr Sheen: you da man. (Uh, let's be clear, I'm directing that comment to Martin Sheen, West Wing alumnus, and not to Mr Sheen, the frankly unconvincing superhero whose existence was contrived to promote the furniture polish that bears his name. To that Mr Sheen, I say only this: you may, indeed, shine umpteen things clean: but, sir, you are emphatically not da man. No offence intended.)

Saturday, May 13, 2006

So then. Here we are.

Estimates vary, but it is generally accepted that between one fifth and one twelfth of the entire internet is taken up with blogs that I've set up and then abandoned: usually because I can't remember where they were. But... Hmm. I think I like it here. (By which I mean I like the default font. I expect there are innumerable other features and benefits which will be wasted on a doofus like me.) So I think I'll really try and focus this time.

This may also be something of an admission that the web site which I've been trying to develop for the last two years (paying eight quid a month or something for the continuing windblown nullity of - really, honestly, don't click that) is never going to be finished. Never. You hear me? YOU HEAR ME, NEW YORK? THE FROG IS STAYING. So let me here and now toss aside all hope of using the web as some kind of promotional medium for my professional work, and develop instead an online journal through which my subrational prejudices, my superstitions and my half-formed responses to the world about me can be safely vented. Ah, never mind the oxygen of publicity; the ammonia of futility is already overwhelming me. (Taxi for Mr Keats, etc.)

So please, sit tight, stay tuned, and hit refresh once every six seconds until the carpal tunnel syndrome starts to spread to your liver. Either I'll be back soon with a series of tantalising glimpses into the showbiz tornado of my day-to-day life: or I'll forget where I left this, and wander off again, quite probably in search of inappropriate composite pictures of Vincent Kartheiser.

Actually, no, look, just in case I don't come back: I love you. For real. Yes, you.