Friday, September 29, 2006

On the forgetfulness of Ursula, &c.

I know it's not the high-art way to look at it, but: one down, one to go.

Which is to say: Longwave is up and open and in fact closes tonight at Newbury. Very peculiar to think that that set, which has begun to seem like a permanent fixture at NGA even though it's only been up about ten days, will be somewhere completely else this time on Saturday. (Bracknell, to be precise.)

There's a really lovely, touching review here, with which I -- hm, is it weird to say I agree? I think knowing that I won't see the show again (unless it has a future life, which I very much hope it might), and it being such a detailed piece of performance which is so much about what Tom and Jamie bring to it, I feel objective enough, or at least sufficiently outside it, to have an immodest opinion for once; and I'm anyway exceptionally proud of Longwave, not least because the process and the making was so difficult and such hard work, as longstanding Thompson's customers will know. Seeing the show made me cry, the other night. (For good reasons.) The pleasure of watching and being around the production these last few days has felt hard-earned. I just hope the boys will continue to enjoy it and stay faithful to it: which latter aim I think is bound to be immensely difficult, particularly for Jamie who has the more overtly demonstrative role in the double-act. I'm sure they will. I'm quite sure. (Yes, that is a bit ambiguous. Shut up.)

Very sad not to be there tonight-- several people in the audience I'd have loved to see. Instead of which I'm at home writing this. Probably seems an odd choice -- though you know I love you and I feel horribly guilty if I don't give you the attention you deserve -- but actually this blog-emission is mostly just something to do while the video files for the next show are rendering in the background. (Amazingly slowly. How is it possible that the Zennish slowness of video rendering is freshly amazing every time?)

The next show of course being Rhymes, Reasons and Bomb-Ass Beatz. (Over curry last night J managed to mangle the title reductively down to Bang-Ass Rhymes which is possibly better.) There's a lot to do -- above all, another dose of round-the-clock sound design will be eating my weekend -- but things are coming together very nicely. As I told the folks on my mailing list, this is probably the only show I'll ever direct about hip-hop, and I've really enjoyed the process: which has much to do with the writer/performer Harold Finley, who's been brilliant company; and he's got a fabulous team together too. I've been very spoilt these last few weeks. Wonderful crew at Greenham, brilliant folks working on Rhymes. What's happened to all the surly techies and jobsworth stage managers? Where have they gone? Is there some kind of emo music festival this month on White Dogpoo Island? Or maybe they all just live year-round in a crypt or smoke-filled ottoman at the Pleasance now. Who can say?

Actually, everything seems a bit weird in theatreworld at the moment. Like this totally inexplicable and unnecessary production of Bent that's opening at Trafalgar Studios with Alan Cumming (scusi?) and -- as far as one can tell from the publicity -- nobody else: and with nothing in particular to say for itself except that it features a new song co-written by the less elderly of the Pet Shop Boys. It all sort of looks like the whole project was invented by some clockwork theatrical version of Leon's Random Band Name Generator. ...And then on Monday the Guardian had a whole pull-out section dedicated to the rebuilding of the Young Vic. A bit like the Venezuelan Trade Supplement that Peter Cartwright would borrow from Reggie Perrin on the train each morning because "Ursula's forgotten my tissues". Lots of sleb-actors managing to brood and shimmer in the same pose, like an update on Muscular Christianity for the Film Four hemi-demi-monde: Jude Law natch, Juliet Stevenson, David Harewood, all speaking up for the adventurousness of the Young Vic (and, by a millimetre of implication, their own adventurousness for daring to work there); David Lan genially doing the same. Much blethering on about energy and dreams and endless possibilities -- and then you look at the season programme (e.g. Rufus Norris directing an adaptation of DBC Pierre's Booker-winning Christ On A Bike) and you start to wonder what other theatre these people are actually seeing, what stuff they actually go to. They project this extraordinary mirage of intrepidity, and the language is so visionary you kind of love them for it, and then you realise it's just a bunch of people who are kitting themselves up with oxygen cylinders and Kendal Mint Cake for an expedition to a post office in Zone 2.

Honestly I've no beef with the Young Vic (although David Lan did once fall asleep while I was talking to him, which I feel might have put-out a less resilient chap; to be fair, it was only for a few seconds and he was plainly very tired and I'm sure I was being quite boring, so -- as with, say, a set of lyrics by Martin Sherman and a tune by Chris Lowe -- it would be utterly inappropriate to make a song and dance out of it). It was just one of those weeks -- compounded by a slightly wonky "post-show discussion" (as if) after Longwave yesterday -- that made me wonder a bit. When I say I work in theatre, what do people imagine I mean? David Lan's a good and interesting bloke but do we do similar jobs? Talk in a shared language? Have similar lifestyles and experiences and expectations? I don't know. I mean I really don't know. I wonder. And then, you know, is that how David feels about, I dunno, Bill Kenwright? Or Peter Sellars? Or whoever runs the youth theatre at Oval House? And yet if you're my auntie who sees one West End musical a year and might accidentally watch the Evening Standard Theatre Awards, we're all doing the same job.

I think I'm also still a bit lost in the very peculiar zone I visited last weekend when I got immensely, bountifully, bunting-wavingly drunk and then went to bed and tried to listen to a World Service documentary on Robert Wilson. It was like trying to thread a needle but looking at the process through the spyhole of a hotel room door. But with the spyhole breathing and the needle made out of, I dunno, worms or thread or something. And someone's giving you instructions in a peculiar voice, like Edith Sitwell behind a curtain with a megaphone full of parsley. And you really are life-threateningly drunk. I won't tell you what the consequence of the enterprise was, except to say that a surprising proportion of it actually came out of my nose instead. If nothing else, it was an unexpectedly vivid synaesthetic insight into the later works of Philip Glass. ("It went MMMMM," indeed. You clot. Just drive the damn taxi.)

Not to worry! Into this wibbly-wobbly world of theatrical blee rushes a veritable flood of blogs to help you make sense of it all. Two excellent commentators, poles apart geographically (though what care we for the long and lat, in our post-caring-for-the-long-and-lat culture?) but not, I think, so far apart in the terms and conditions of their respective engagements, have kindly linked to Thompson's in recent days, and it's literally the least I can do to reciprocate. The guilty figure Guardian-side is the pretty splendid Maxie Szalwinska, who seems to brandish with tremendous cheerfulness and a lot of sharp intelligence the fistful of short straws that are her lot and souvenir; at her own Webloge she's unfailingly either right or interesting, and mostly an enviable mixture of all two. Meanwhile, where it's spring, the throbbingly necessary Alison Croggon is manifestly incapable of conceiving a bland thought or an ugly phrase as she continues to compile her rather heroic Theatre Notes. Taken together, Croggon and Szalwinska are the Elaine Paige & Barbara Dickson of theatre criticism: which is why it's to everyone's best advantage that they live in contrary hemispheres and ideally will never meet.

I continue to hear a rumour that there is a world outside of theatre, and indeed I was going to address that rumour in my remarks this evening. But I find it hard to write when I keep having to switch windows to stare in tremulous Cleetus-jawed abjection at the marmite-slow progress of these wretched video files. (Next time we're doing the back-wall images through the medium of live embroidery. Far quicker all round.) So with a bit of luck I'll have a moment to return here in the next day or two and drone on about real life instead. Oh, would you, Chris, would you really? Of course, my lovely chouettes. For you, dears: anything.

Actually, just to round things off while I'm spending all this time on (a) theatre and (b) the Guardian, can I just pop this bit of Billington here?

Theatre can't change the world. But what it can do, when it's as good as
this, is to send us out enriched by other people's passionate concern.

Michael Billington on 'My Name Is Rachel Corrie', 14 April 2005)

It's the single most exactly and reverberantly wrong thing I've ever read (not in respect of that show, but in respect of theatre in general), and I keep forgetting to write about it. (Not here, it's OK.) So if I put it here, at least I'll remember where it is.

Don't have nightmares.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Actually I'm normally paid in worms...

Great steaming scott, it's been over a month! I'm mortified. However have you passed the time? I'm afraid I've mostly been working -- pretty much flat-out, actually, since I got back from Edinburgh: which seems like ages ago now. Not least because it was.

Crumbs. What can I remember? I certainly remember the marvellous unalloyed pleasure of having no one sit next to me on the train going up. (Achieved through a quite brilliant melange -- if I say so myself -- of scowling, sprawling, reading a wide newspaper, and listening to Joanna Newsom on the old Pod at just-sufficient volume to repel all who came near.) And there was also a very lovely moment where I realized that, although my late booking meant I was spending absurd amounts on my hotel room, it was actually a proportionately absurdly nice room: quite unexpected. (I don't very often get to stay in hotels but I've picked up enough of the jargon to know that words like "superior" and "deluxe" normally translate as "fitted carpet" and "hot water most of the time". But for once, on this occasion, I was sold a pig in a pig-container accurately marked CONTENTS: ONE PIG.)

It was my tenth visit to the festival since 1994 but my first ever as a joe-schmo punter. No show-related anxiety, no stress, no fatigue disturbing the balance of my mind. All terribly vanilla I'm afraid. Nonetheless I did manage to cram in all of the standard issue EREV (Edinburgh Related Emotional Vacillation), I just didn't find myself in possession of an entirely fragmented personality halfway down Rose Street at four in the morning, it was all much more civilised than that. Weird to go alone, and there were moments where that started to chafe a bit, but it was awfully nice to just please myself (and to have no one counting the number of Oreo shakes I was getting through at Black Medicine... except possibly the guy who was making them).

Managed to find time for most of the traditional activities (I don't mean this in the sense Kenneth Williams would have intended), and was particularly pleased to find that, presumably in accordance with some arcane statute, Avalanche on West Nicholson Street still displays a copy of The Way Of The Vaselines in its window at all times. Didn't get to the Cameo -- v sad, particularly as it seems to have a rather precarious existence at the moment, notwithstanding its new ownership by the Picture House chain; didn't manage to buy Ilchester Farmhouse cheese from my usual supplier, who seem to have stopped stocking it; didn't get to see Phil Kay, who I try to see every year if I can, on the grounds that (a) in 1994 at an Amnesty benefit he got me from zero to doubled-up weeping-with-laughter in under a minute, and (b) every time I've seen him since then he's been so brilliantly hit-and-miss, it's impossible ever to think for a moment that he might not be worth going to see again next year... He's a straight-up-and-down hero of mine, and I was pleased to see the comedy critics beginning to pay due attention to him again this year, though I don't suppose he cares much.

Ok, well, of course, I have to give out awards, otherwise I might as well just, you know, sit here eating strawberry Pocky sticks and giving out awards in my head...

Absolutely Best Thing I Saw: The Robert Ryman show, curated by Urs Raussmuller, at Inverleith House. I can't imagine a more beautifully appropriate venue for this (literally and exactly) awesome show. You walk around the seven rooms of this domestic-size gallery, there is natural light from all sides (the house is set in the Botanic Garden), one or two pieces in each room. I only had the vaguest idea of Ryman's work beforehand, and so was sort of unprepared for how astounding this show would be: so rigorous, so tender. Three or four of the pieces on display were just perfect. It's idiotic even to attempt to write about them, but I got the same feeling I got when I first saw Rothko or Lucio Fontana's slash pictures or Miroslaw Balka's recent work. I probably only spent forty minutes in there -- I'd squeezed it in between theatre shows -- but it was like breathing pure oxygen. (Incidentally, the show continues through till October 1st so if there's any way you can get to it, I just can't recommend it highly enough.)

Most Inspiring Theatre: the TEAM at the Traverse, Particularly In The Heartland. I saw this young New York company last year, with a smart and groovy demolition of Hamlet called A Thousand Natural Shocks, and thought they were probably worth keeping an eye out for. So I'd booked for them this year, but nearly didn't go as they clashed with a Book Festival appearance by Stuart McLean. As it was, McLean had sold out (boy, would that have been a different evening) and I'm so glad I reverted to plan A. Particularly In The Heartland is one of the most fiercely engaged and exuberantly theatrical productions I've seen in years. The first few minutes (enforced audience singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic) had me cringing a bit -- quite intentional I'm sure -- but once they hit their stride they ran for an hour and forty minutes of high-speed high-intellect high-risk full-on theatre without once putting a foot wrong. Not only were they wonderfully, messily eloquent about present-day American political and social culture, they were also brilliant at indicating the role that the theatrical encounter could play in not simply encapsulating or satirising such a predicament but in actually attacking and outperforming it. This is what elevates them (for me), finally, over the Riot Group: in terms of the social presentation of theatre at its fullest and most touching, they're just leaps and bounds ahead. I left on such a high I just had to walk around for the rest of the evening -- so my apologies to Daniel Kitson that there was an empty seat in his audience that night. It made me feel really reconnected to some of the energies (for dire want of a better word) that my work had when I was the TEAM's age; and those energies, it's clear, are not just the joyous permissions of youthful self-invention, but the propellant that all theatre needs if it's genuinely going to contribute to the transformation of the wider thought-culture. -- Interesting, btw, to see that the TEAM's London connection (for the moment) is with BAC. David Jubb's mistrust of work that dares to make intellectual commitments is obviously not as absolute as he seems to like to suggest. Good on him, and on them all. (Take note: their BAC run finishes this Sunday. Do what it takes.)

Most Sublimely Entertaining Hour: Stamping Ground / Inspector Sands's Hysteria at Aurora Nova. Just the most beautifully conceived, immaculately performed, gosh-darned delightful piece of devised physical comedy you could possibly wish for. Three quite extraordinarily gorgeous performances by Ben Lewis and Guilia Innocenti (on an unravelling first date) and Lucinka Eisler (as their waiter). In probably every workshop I run, and in many rehearsals I'm supposedly driving, there's a baffling bit where I bang on about how the job of the actor in an ensemble is to give attention away, to do everything possible to make the other performers look better and more beautiful. I wish everyone could see Hysteria -- I'd never need to try and explain that notion again. It's won every award going -- quite right too: and now this one. I wish there was a statuette or something, Lucinka's one of the few people I know who I think should have more statuettes. ...Oh, and this show wins Best One-Liner as well: the woman on the date blurts out that her first sexual experience was when she was fourteen; then immediately noticing that she's inadvertently shocked her dining companion, she continues: "...ah, but that was with my brother, so it doesn't count." Timed to perfection, too. A show you could eat your dinner off.

Gobble Gobble: for the sake of it, two turkeys and a capon. Just quickly.

Turkey #1: Robert Mapplethorpe at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Oooof, he's dated badly. The show really suffered from not having any of his more experimental collage-y work from the very early 70s, which has held up much better. The stunning and iconic portrait of Alice Neel was the only piece really worth seeing live in the room -- though the affectionate pictures of Louise Bourgeois and Willem de Kooning always make me smile, and some of his punkier subjects (such as a tattooed young fellow aptly named Smutty) sit in an interesting tension to the inert sheen that was already constraining him by the turn of the 80s. It was a melancholy afternoon for me: Mapplethorpe was quite important to me in my late teens; but I think that says more about me and that time in my life, and very little about any persisting artistic value in his work.

Turkey #2: Derevo, Ketzal at Aurora Nova. Another excruciating display of trivial and vainglorious arsing-around. It really was like root canal work for the soul. Almost needless to say, the last fifteen minutes were among the most thrilling I've ever spent in a theatre: they'd flooded the stage with water, there was a big red sun, there was smoke, there were enough lights to bake a large-ish potato, there were figures in silhouette, we were in a sodding church. Of course it was thrilling. With all that being thrown at it, that final sequence could just have been my dad doing the washing-up and it still would have looked like the most exciting work in town. What empty-headed conservative piffle. Anyway. It is done. I have hated everything I've seen by Derevo and I think that now adds up to actually just hating Derevo. And their stupid braying cult-sucker groupies. And then Derevo again, who, alternating layers of insult and injury like a monumental obnoxious lasagne, have taken to doing horrible Sankai Juku-like curtain calls.

Capon: see I hate to say this but can I just share? I'm the one person who didn't get Floating (Hugh Hughes and Hoi Polloi at the Pleasance). I wanted to like it, I was perfectly prepared to like it, and for quite long stretches I didn't dislike it. But the more I look back on it from a bit of distance, the more I think it was actually rather disingenuous and poorly made. (Which is not to say that I disliked the jumbly chaos of it for being jumbly chaos, but because it was fake jumbly chaos and because it was the wrong jumbly chaos.) I'd like to introduce a new word into critical vocabulary at this point: whimsoid. Material having the appearance of whimsy but actually rather a joyless and leaden heart. Floating strikes me as good-quality whimsoid. By no means a bad show, and plainly made for good and noble reasons, but it didn't ring true stylistically or in its apparent values. It made me long for the true master of Edinburgh whimsy, Ben Moor, who (I think) was taking a year off. The first two minutes of his A Supercollider For The Family remain probably the most perfectly judged, heart-stretching bits of storytelling I've ever heard.

There's a lot more I could say about Edinburgh and a number of shows that deserve comment -- Liam Steel's brilliantly conceived Knots with CoisCeim Dance at Aurora Nova; Simon Amstell's engrossing and infuriating stand-up at a much reinvigorated Pleasance Dome; the quiet genius of Will Adamsdale and Chris Branch's The Receipt at the godawful Assembly Rooms... But to be honest, the minute Edinburgh's over, it already feels like last year, and nobody needs the coldcuts waved in their face.

Since then, I'm afraid it really has been almost entirely work -- Longwave opens next week and Rhymes, Reasons and Bomb-Ass Beatz two weeks after that.

I've only really been allowed out to play once, last Sunday, for one of Tate Modern's showings of Destricted, the portmanteau skinflick in which various likely film-makers and fine artists present their reflections on sex and pornography in cinema.

I liked a lot of the individual films, I must say. Matthew Barney's Hoist is a typically ravishing opener that goes right to the erotic heart of the public/private tension that reverberates through so much of his film work. Marina Abramovic's Balkan Erotic Epic was an unexpectedly wry and affectionate piece about the cultural production of sexual behaviour. And that misunderstood genius Larry Clark turned in a vintage short in Impaled, a really perceptive and restrained (and customarily self-implicating) investigation into the suasive and arguably distorting influence that pornography has on the erotic-imaginative scope of young men raised in the home video / internet era, and on the self-possession of women involved in the porn industry. I -heart- Larry Clark, and though I must admit I still struggle to admire his pretty dreadful (or, rather, penny dreadful) Teenage Caveman, I think Impaled confirms to me what some of his movies, especially Another Day In Paradise and the quite exceptionally smart and important Ken Park, have long suggested (and, of course, his photography too, right from the get-go with Tulsa in the early 70s): that he is thinking very deeply and very bravely about the way the body is, just like language, implicated at the most frighteningly irrecuperable level in the circuits of charisma and performative mediation out of which our social relations are induced. His body of work is, I would argue, a set of self-portraits more faithful and unyielding than anything Mapplethorpe produced, even at his most explicit; more faithful and unyielding, possibly, than any corpus of visual self-portraits since Rembrandt.

There was an artistically negligible and critically null piece by Richard Prince (bit of a let-down from an artist I admire); a clever but shallow blip of a thing by Marco Brambilla; an appallingly ugly and (if it's not the wrong phrase) ham-fisted execution of an interesting idea by Sam Taylor Wood; and a characteristically moronic and malevolent non-contribution from Gaspar Noe, surely now the most redundant filmmaker in the world (at least while Abel Ferrara's still missing presumed braindead) and probably the most overrated, not least by the many millions of people who hate him.

But the real disappointment of Destricted was as a curated programme as a whole. Perhaps the wording of the original brief to the invited directors was not well tuned. At any rate, what frustrated me was the emphasis on the mimicry of, or blurry critique of, the visual behaviours of film pornography; not enough of the work seemed to be interested in finding ways to put real sex on screen that weren't pornographic (with or without a layer or six of irony). It made for a very self-conscious compendium, which is to say that it never seemingly managed to dig down to a sufficiently radical starting-point to be able to throw up some genuinely new insights. The most distinctive artistic expression, the Barney piece, was in some ways also the most oblique -- one might almost say evasive, though the constant translation-shifts and systematic pressures of mythopoesis that characterise his work are never exactly evasive, they're just elusive -- and perhaps ultimately only the Larry Clark piece stared the question(s) out: everybody else blinked first.

What's particularly frustrating is that these questions, around the sex-life of performance, are just as vital to theatre (and live art and dance) as they are to film: possibly more so, as there are some ways in which the film experience can never telegraph "reality" in the way that the live experience can and should. The imaging of sex is, or can be, exactly at the biting-point of so many critical questions to do with the theatrical modelling of social relations.

So I was hoping for some inspiration; or at least a set of statements that would be interesting to discuss and examine. It's possible that Destricted might become that, I suppose, and at any rate I've preordered the DVD. (Viewing it on a Sunday afternoon with a bunch of giggling sweetie-unwrapping twits at Tate Modern was never going to be very blithely conducive...) But it's not switched the light on that I hoped it might. The whole area is tricky not least because it's very difficult to get into it with performers, especially in a research context; it seems almost comically lubricious and self-deluding even to begin to sketch out any kind of enquiry. Perhaps only the fierce heat of Larry Clark's self-portraiture in Impale, as in Ken Park, can cut through all the dreary fog of denial and displacement.

More importantly, I thought it was time to have a crack at embedding a video, everyone else is doing it and every time I see this I make the sort of gurgling sound that comes out of some unpredictable bit of your face when your laugh response is flooded.

From the brilliant Robert Popper & Peter Serafinowicz, blessings upon them.

And also upon you, my tenacious reader. Very well done. (Comment me a comment, do: it gets so lonely here and the nights are drawing in.)