Sunday, May 13, 2007

Plymouth / our guile

Darn it, the sun's out. The forecast was diabolical rainy muck-muck pelting like squid ink out of a charcoal sky. (Admittedly, that's not the exact phrase that Rob McElwee used.) Instead of which we've got the sort of weather that a light-deprived and seasonally affective fellow such as meself ought to be out playing in, splishin' and splashin' and jumpin' in the sand like tonight Matthew I'm going to be Michael Franti trapped in the body of the Pillsbury Doughboy. But meh, it's been a hard week and right now there's nothing I'd rather be doing than languishing grossly in the dank crepusculisme of my Hoeside apartment and passing a little time with my imaginary friend, the composite Thompson's reader to whom the content of these pages is addressed, and who presumably looks a bit like a hastily assembled identikit photo of you-yourself.

So, three weeks have passed, Mr Tony Blah has announced his resignation a mere nine and a half years too late, the last remaining heterosexuals have been eliminated from the ranks of contestants on Any Dream Will Do, and even as I write the Speed Death set is going into the Drum. I think I get to have a little sneaky peak at it later. Astounding that it's still not even twenty days since we gathered to read through the draft script, and now here we all are, only a few days out from opening. This time has gone very quickly and it's been kind of intense, though not perhaps at the pitch I might have anticipated. I think I was sort of fantasizing in a not completely healthy way about a process that was raw and jagged and put us all way out on a limb; but that's not the kind of room I'm good at making, and mostly that's a good thing. There may be something appealing about once in a while knuckling down to an orgy of blood sweat and tears but come lunchtime you still have to stand in the green room queue deciding whether to have a brie and cranberry panini or a jacket potato. I'm not sure anything good comes out of emotionally inflationary processes, they're too often bogus and egocentric. Not to say this has been a walk in the park, anyway: I think we've all had some dark and tearful times and I dare say there are more to come. It's, heaven knows, a much more serrated piece than I've made in donkey's years, sad in a much more savage way than the usual notes of lyrical melancholy and poignancy that I more often sound.

Perhaps because of that -- because Speed Death goes out of its way not to exhibit (so strongly) the virtues that people who like my work have tended particularly to latch on to -- I'm more nervous about the reception of this piece than anything I've done maybe ever, certainly since the original (and, on balance, superior) version of Napoleon in Exile. A few folks have watched runs now, and their responses have been various: largely encouraging but definitely enough to lead me to expect the piece to divide its audiences. Which is fine, and good. But then of course you start to worry about percentages a little bit... We were very happy with last Saturday's Guardian preview -- though it won't do anything to squash the scurrilous teasing I'm subjected to about Lyn Gardner and me sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G. As if you'd ever get me up a tree in the first place. (It's also a bit unfounded: she's not been a fan of everything by any means.) Hopefully we'll sell a few tickets on the back of it, though, and that's good news. We don't seem to be breaking box office records exactly.

Anyway, everything is mostly passing congenially. There was a double birthday to celebrate, which not only took us to the Gin Factory -- cocktails to expire for, and a lot of gorgeous looking offal and seafood to lust after on everyone else's plate while I prodded despondently at my punitive potato cakes -- but also necessitated a bit of Supermarket Sweep action at the local Toys R Us. (Coolio, but man, I'm happy I was a child of the 70s; toys these days, at least in a big store like that, seem to exhibit such poverty of spirit and imagination. But then I'm speaking as someone who -- as an old boyfriend once told me -- has "a distant relationship with fun".) And we've had good pub times and pleasant dinners and we've laughed a lot and until the last few days we've been lucky with sunshine and blue skies and a nice walk out to the rehearsal studios.

In fact the only fly in the ointment -- a wolf in fly's clothing, perhaps -- was the saga of The Wonderful World of Dissocia, which we all went and saw in the first week we were here, while it was passing through the Theatre Royal's main house. Well now...

Before I get into this, I'd better throw down a disclaimer or two. Or maybe just this one. I don't, I really don't, have a problem with Anthony Neilson. Seriously I don't. Some of his work as a writer and director has been very fine and almost all of it has been significant one way or another (including Dissocia); more than that, he is patently thinking hard and searchingly about what theatre should and could be doing right now, and he's working forcefully to make theatre that expresses that vision, and that he does so immediately and in itself puts him near the top of the list of theatre makers in this country who I value and admire. You're waiting for a 'but' but it's not that sort of 'but', it's more of an 'and' disguised as a 'but', and here it comes. But: I find that I seriously and profoundly disagree with almost all of the conclusions that he draws in his thinking about theatre.

Now my position has always been that disagreeing with someone, even vehemently, is in itself a mark of respect for them: the empty and the meretricious stuff you don't bother with, do you?, you don't want to get into a conversation with it. Neilson, on the contrary, is definitely to be reckoned with. So it was disappointing that when I wrote a piece for the Guardian a few years ago seriously and respectfully taking issue with a set of pronouncements that he'd made in Edinburgh that year, his response was to use an interview with Mark Ravenhill in the same pages a few days later to call me (I think it's safe to assume he was referring to me) a "wanker". But I haven't lost much sleep over it and I doubt he even remembers who I am.

The only other beef flavouring to our non-relationship (because I should stress that we've never met or corresponded) is entirely extraneous to Anthony himself, and it's more comical than anything: that my experience of dealing, particularly in the early days, with Theatre Royal Plymouth was very much shadowed by their excellent and relatively longstanding producing relationship with Neilson. Because there are common features, from a practical perspective (such as TRP's), to our working practices -- we're both writer-directors and we both tend to start rehearsal processes some time before the script is finished -- a sort of yoking tended to happen, where he was frequently offered as a sort of template in relation to which I was to be situated. When I first came down here with our set designer, I said to her on the train that she should expect to hear Anthony Neilson's name five times during the day, and I think she thought I was joking; in fact we counted six. Of course no artist wishes to be thought of or spoken about constantly in terms of another artist, particularly one with whom (from a rather different perspective) one feels little common ground and a good deal of dissonance; but luckily it became, to me at least, a running joke -- particularly after the meeting in which the artistic director solemnly but kindly explained to me how much less well known I am than Anthony: which of course is absolutely true, and it was rather sweet that he thought I might not already appreciate it. So, look, that's why I referred to Anthony as TRP's "goldenballs" in my last post -- I was only being, I dunno, wry; it wasn't a dig exactly (though admittedly I did think his Guardian article to which I was referring at the time was pretty weak stuff).

Let the record show, anyway, that I was genuinely looking forward very much to seeing Dissocia, partly because as I say I have admired some of Neilson's previous work and partly because several people whose opinion I take very seriously believe Dissocia to be a brilliant and important piece. I went in good spirits and with an open mind, in the company of most of the Speed Death cast.

I'm sorry -- I honestly am sorry -- to say that I thought it was really kind of awful: and so, it turned out, said all of us. In fact my reaction was less extreme than some. It held my interest, at least; I just disagreed with almost everything it was doing. Which I suppose was only to be expected, given that I seem to disagree with almost everything Anthony believes about theatre, but it was still something of a disappointment.

If you haven't seen or read about it, the basic outline is that Dissocia divides into two incredibly different halves -- and the boldness of that originary concept I do unreservedly admire. The first half has a young woman visiting a sort of topsy-turvy imaginary world called Dissocia, which could be vaguely but adequately described as a melange of Alice in Wonderland, Beachcomber and Jamie & his Magic Torch. She encounters various looking-glass figures, such as a pair of fluorescent-jacketed neurotic wrecks with woefully low self-esteem who turn out to be, hem hem, insecurity guards. (He's here all week, try the liver.) There's a cheery episode in which a female council official is raped by a saturnine goat, and an interminable scene set in a Lost Lost Property Office Office which features a character speaking Comedy Chinese after the fashion of Rosie O'Donnell. There are songs and broad asides and a cuddly polar-bear puppet thing and darkling intimations of danger, all energetically telegraphed in a style somewhere between panto, Forced Entertainment at their most robust (particularly the central figure's travelling narratives), and an order of physical comedy stylings that locate a hitherto unimagined middle-ground between very early Complicite and the sketches on 3-2-1. (I should say straight away that some of the performances are truly commendable: it was a particular treat to see my old pal Barney Power plainly enjoying himself at full tilt, and one or two other familiar faces equally unstintingly turning the dial all the way up to 11, which is, incontrovertibly, one more than 10.)

We return from the interval (if we return from the interval) to find everything's different. Gone is the mercilessly ugly brown carpet shell in which the first act has been played out, leaving its characters stranded and adrift in something a bit like a Magic Eye picture. Instead we have a super-naturalistic, ultra-chic hospital room set; the level of realistic detail is so fervidly redolent of television that there's even a glass screen between us and the action. Here is the same young woman whose adventures we trailed in part one, hospitalised and initially all but catatonic. At some point we realise that the first half we watched was all in her head, the product of some dissociative disorder. The monotony and mundanity of hospital life and of the slow recovery from an episode of serious mental illness is faithfully and bravely and in some ways rather movingly played out. There is a succession of just-passing-through doctors; a family member and, later, a partner turn up and tell her she should take her medication. She is brought a small cuddly polar-bear from home (a-ha) and there is some sort of culminatory lightshow.

OK, well, let's see. I disliked the first half very much more than the second, and it's possible that Neilson might have been able to recuperate the whole experience for me: but, fatally, he fails to clinch the argument of the play. Why doesn't the woman take her medicine? Because there's something alluring and beautiful and compelling about her experiences in the world of Dissocia, and though she knows she's better off when she's drugged up, she can't bring herself to resist the siren-call of her private wonderland. ...Well, sorry, no. We spent an hour and a quarter with her in that world and nothing alluring or beautiful or compelling happened at any moment. Honestly, you would take your medication with the most avid gratitude and without fail. Possibly a bit extra to be on the safe side. I have very little patience with this whole 'comforts of madness' routine: almost no one with any personal experience of chronic mental illness would describe that experience as anything other than cruel and miserable. Of course people feel very ambivalent -- as do I -- about taking medication, but the issue is much more commonly about the invasiveness of powerful drugs, and the depleting effect they have on one's regular life: not about being robbed of the beauty or comfort of hallucinatory or delusional episodes, which are for most sufferers frightening and degrading.

I have spent quite a bit of time saying about Dissocia to various people, well, you've got to admire Neilson's chutzpah, his cojones. And in a way you do. But I always end up wondering whether you don't at some point have to take into account what he's using his daring and his boldness in the service of. There is something very brilliant and very exciting about and at the very core of Dissocia: that it entwines an argument about mental illness with an argument about theatre and expresses each in terms of the other. This is something I've been arguing for for a long time, and trying to do with Speed Death, and I was in a way really happy to see Anthony reaching similar conclusions about the importance of such an approach. Unfortunately, to my mind, his arguments about each are so glib and regressive, he ends up presenting a distorted account of both.

I'm quite happy to record that the audience at the Theatre Royal seemed on the whole to be lapping up the play; it was a lively crowd, bulked out with what I guess were sixth-form students, and they appeared to revel in the experience. For me, there is something disturbing about Neilson's construal of 'entertainment'. I don't doubt he would want to lambast the sort of work I most admire for being highbrow and pretentious and not sufficiently entertaining. But I can't ignore what's at the root of the idea of entertainment -- entre + tenir: that which holds us together. The panto rough-and-tumble that generates such delight in Dissocia is not, in that sense, entertaining, because both in its nostalgic pandering and its coarseness it has the effect of infantilising its adult audience: rather than holding everyone together, it separates us from ourselves and from what is immanent to our public lives and interdependences. Work that is so strenuously undemanding of our attachment does not bestow some gift or holiday on us; it bullies us out of our aspirations, it makes us relinquish our desire to grow. This is not about being highbrow, it's about being truthful about our capacity to do more than our least: when I think of the entertainers I admire most, from Robert Lepage to Ken Dodd to Laurie Anderson to Danny Kaye to Jim Henson to Andy Kaufman to Pete Seeger, and so on and on, they're all acutely alive to the connectivity that inheres in people. Dissocia is scared of that connectivity. The whole viciously anti-intellectual mood in so much supposedly cutting-edge British theatre in the past few years (& likewise in poetry, and literature in general) is scared of that connectivity. It's so browbeaten by the fear of appearing inaccessible to 'ordinary people' that in its nervousness it evacuates itself of all daring, of all courage: which is why that kind of theatre is forever describing itself in terms of other things it might be like -- no no, you'll like this, it's like clubbing, it's like the telly, it's like something-or-other on acid... Its dependency on readymade and unexamined likenesses, and crassly underachieving determinations of the popular mood, is divisive and conservative and, most bathetically of all, terminally untheatrical. Treating 'ordinary' adults in this way is not extending a courtesy to them that 'highbrow' theatre does not; it is treating them with contempt, in exactly the way that most 'popular' tv has for years been mired in a bilious contempt for its viewers.

(You want to make theatre more accessible? One, get ticket prices down, way down. Two, stop fucking lying about what theatre can dare to do.)

Well, crumbs; this twisty rant is by no means directed solely at Anthony Neilson's delighted and dedicated supporters -- of whom I am so nearly one it's astonishing I can stand to be so rude about his work. As the lovely Mr Stokes said, Anthony's name and his work are very much better known than mine and I shouldn't have thought my opinions would matter a hill of beans to him in this crazy mixed-up world... I hope he will carry on doing what he thinks is right; the volume of dissent is pretty low and he should anyway enjoy the oxygen.

Meanwhile, the Speed Death cast (not me -- I needed a lie down) stopped for a drink with the Dissocia cast after the show and, perhaps injudiciously but only because the question was directly put to them, said that they hadn't much liked it. (Piano-player stops playing; man stops dealing cards; the whole saloon falls silent.) Cut to the following evening when a small posse of disgruntled Dissociates bawl out of their dressing-room at passing Speed Death folks: "Chris Goode's a ..." -- actually, I won't go so far as to repeat the epithet they employed: partly because I wish no offence to my tender Thompson's readers whose sensibilities I know to be (on average) a mite more delicate than the average blogospheronaut's, but mostly because I don't want the phrase they used to turn up on page one every time somebody Googles my name... Vanity, ah, vanity.

Of course I can well understand that you have to get pumped pre-show to be able to go out and pull off a feat like Dissocia night after night, and that having cartoon enemies might help; everybody needs a prick to kick against. (No, that wasn't the word they used. Quite the opposite in fact.) But I would be sorry to think there were any kind of far-reaching animosity. It speaks volumes that Neilson inspires such loyalty, and nothing I can say will ever dent that -- nor would I wish to. I'd rather stand up for a culture in which we can talk in a passionate and engaged way about the things that matter to us, and I don't suppose the Dissocia cast are actually fundamentally opposed to that idea, any more than Anthony himself was when he sportively dismissed me as a 'wanker'. I hope not, anyway.

On which note, I should stop: though not before popping a teeny tiny doll's-house cork in celebration of Thompson's first birthday, with which this post happens to coincide. Oh, my dear regular readers, both of you... Maybe I didn't treat you quite as good as I should have; little things I should have said and done, I never took the time. But I'm sincerely grateful for the conversations that this blog has initiated, the dialogues in which I've been able to participate, the creativity and the kindness of those visitors who have graced these pages with their attention. As Kate Bush once noted, we're building a house of the future together. (I picture it as a giant Mario Merz igloo, but with underfloor heating and a skylight above the bath.) I hope over the next year I'll be able to use Thompson's more creatively myself, and perhaps provide a space for other voices. But that's all for life after Speed Death, if indeed there turns out to be such a thing.


Matt Hopkinson said...

Good article and I agree wholehartedly wih your comments on Dissocia. I went to see it with Wendy Hubbard and it sat uneasily with me (the play that is, not Wendy, to whom I would never refer as 'it').
As Morrissey said, 'it says nothing to me about my life'.

Anonymous said...

how'd it go then?
(Speed Death)
I thought that the second half of Dissocia was moving and important. Nice of you to help articulate what I thought about the first half, which was frequently tedious to sit through. It reminded me of Tiswas, with all the reductive, bullying logic of that format.
Anyway never mind that. How'd it go?

Andrew Field said...

Hope Speed Death went well. And thanks for the plug in the last post, much appreciated.

Am too-ing and fro-ing on Dissocia. Gave it a glowing review meself as you might have seen but I think that was primarily a consequence of a couple of personal fixations on the way in which form can convey meaning and the relationship between film and theatre. And the fact that the first half reminded me of a panto we did in University based on the Lord of the Rings and Nostalgia does funny things to a man's judgement.

But thinking beyond my rather limited fixation on the mechanics of the things I can see that there is a bit of a fundamental problem with the (even metaphorical) notion of a liberatory madness. Reminds me of those booted, suited and cherouted french philosophers so in love with de-centred subjectivity. Ever they really tried being a de-centred subject? It's nice in theory (and by that i mean for certain theories its nice shorthand) but in practise (and i don't speak from personal experience here it must be said) it seems a much more painful, difficult thing.

Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Thompson

Kieron Q said...

I'm a big fan of both yours and Neilson's work, and didn't like Dissocia unreservedly.

But boiling you down a bit, is your argument that you found Dissocia:

1. A little glib on a moral/argumentative plane.

2. A little patronising and LCD on a theatrical plane.

If so, I agree with both,though I don't care much about the first. The joke about going off to have a poo, in particular, was the sort of crap comedian's line that makes you wonder if the playwright thinks you're an idiot.

But I find it fascinating that it so affected your enjoyment as to find it actively awful. Would you so have hated it if you'd seen it from a non-entity? Is it the prominence of Neilson's viewpoint you're hating here or the play itself? Or do you not separate the two?

Chris Goode said...

Thanks everyone for these very interesting comments. I'm not really seeking to change any minds on Dissocia, I think it's perfectly reasonable to have enjoyed it and admired it! The balance of feedback I've received b/c is probably fifty-fifty between broadly pro and broadly anti, which seems fine to me.

Kieron, there's definitely something in what you say. I've seen plenty of plays that were in every way worse than Dissocia, yes, of course. But Anthony has real ambitions, not (or not just) for himself but for the artform; and he has a huge amount of well-earned attention on his work at the moment. In which context, as the saying goes, a miss is as good as a mile. Or something. I mean, you have all this attention, this goodwill, all these eyes on you -- what are you going to do with it? (All theatre should feel like that, of course, but it mostly doesn't.) The current foment in British theatre, with all its fluidity and pluralism, is for the moment a pleasant environment: but once the ACE pips start squeaking, that mobility is going to feel more and more like rearranging the deckchairs, and -- to change metaphors midstream -- when the music stops, we're all going to be trying to find a deckchair we can sit in. What I'm saying, rather opaquely, is that I imagine sooner or later there will be a move toward more rigid grouping around a very small number of competing agendas, we'll all pick teams again (or be picked by them). And seemingly radical productions like Dissocia will be the kind of work that the isobars get drawn through. Which would be metaphor number six.

Your boil-down of what you say I'm saying isn't quite how I'd boil it down myself, but that's ok. I'm a bit unsure about 'LCD' though -- I presume that means 'lowest common denominator'? Which is a yucky phrase anyway, but particularly in this context, because that's precisely what I'm not saying. A lowest common denominator would by definition be something which everyone shares: in which sense, I don't see that there's any harm or ignobility in seeking it. My problem particularly with the first half of Dissocia is how divisive it is, how it almost buckles under the weight of the unacknowledged assumptions it makes about the audience and their own values. It feels very 'us and them' and I felt very 'them'. I probably am 'them', to be fair.

But I've had my crack at this already. Thanks for joining in!

Anonymous said...


I've just been pointed to this column as I keep hearing people tell me you can't stand me and I never really understand why. For the record,I didn't call you a wanker. And I know that one of my cast members was rude to you in Plymouth and I was not happy about that - contrary to popular opinion, I cannot abide rudeness of that sort, and I told him so. Otherwise, your article is interesting and fair comment. Perhaps one day we'll meet and argue it out over a beer.


Anthony Neilson

Chris Goode said...

Hi Anthony

Not sure if you'll see this, but fwiw:

Thanks a lot for stopping by. I don't have anything much to add beyond what I say in the post. The idea that I "can't stand" you is weird and unhappy and totally false and I don't know quite where it comes from -- not me, I promise; obviously, I don't know you, we've never met, this is the first contact we've had, and I hope it's clear from the piece that whatever misgivings I may have about specific encounters I've had with your work, I respect you and I'm glad you're doing what you're doing.

I'm sorry if I incorrectly added up 2+2 to produce the notion in my own mind that you called me a wanker... I've just trawled back through the Guardian web site: on August 26th 2004 they had an interview with you & Mark R in which you said: "Nowadays I get two whole columns in a newspaper for some wanker to slag off my work." This was roughly a fortnight after I got two whole columns in the Guardian to, er, slag off your work -- and I'd already heard from someone else that you were furious about it. So I did a bit of a Carly Simon and assumed the song was about me. If you say it wasn't then I very gladly accept that, even at the loss of a prized badge of honour...

Anyway, everything we're talking about, the incident in Plymouth included -- though that wasn't quite as isolated as we both make out: there was a whole thing about our posters being obscenely defaced in the green room at TRP and crappy stuff like that: though I'm not suggesting that had your endorsement either! -- everything we're talking about is all, like, years ago, and not so much a sleeping dog as a cryogenically suspended one.

Yeah, I hope we get to run into each other for real at some point, that would be cool. And I hope people stop telling you I can't stand you, or that when they do, you'll flatly contradict them, with my blessing.

peace out, Cx