Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thompson's Cavalcade of 20/20 Hindsight

Tibby, who did not quite make it through the year. Legs, model's own.

As news continues to trickle in regarding the (potential) casualties of this Arts Council bloodletting exercise -- and with a depressing number of commentators too-readily inveighing against the "kneejerk" yowling of the arts community in the face of difficult decisions which naturally have to be made: while on the ground it's clear that very many of these decisions are based on outdated evidence, poor analysis and a resounding strategic nullity -- the end-of-year urge to look backwards is particularly strong right now. So here's a retrospective post in two parts; if, following my prompt at the end of the last post, you've got some party poppers at the ready (and what civilised person hasn't?), I'm intending that you should save them for part two, so don't pop too soon, y'hear?

The Furtive 50 will be along sometime before January 1st -- I haven't made a lot of progress yet, but being away from London shortly will be a huge help -- and that's quite enough of a list, so here's a more personal, rambly, impressionistic... y'know... whatever. I was trying to think about particular moments that seem likely to persist in my otherwise addled Thompson's memorybank, so I'll start with that and see where we get.

I'm sure the sensation of 2007 that will stay with me longest was the instant on Sunday 14th January, and reported hereabouts not long after, of catching my first sight of Sydney Opera House, two days before opening Kiss of Life there. The whole experience of those seven short days in Sydney now seems very unreal and soft-focus (except for some of the food -- three or four meals from that trip remain incredibly sharply imprinted on some dedicated region of my poor congested heart); I think it's because the quality of light is so different, it can hardly be reconciled with the comparative gloom of London in July, let alone December. Also I guess there was a huge and quite abruptly apparent mismatch between what I feel I'm doing and what (very occasionally) that makes possible in my life. I'm still just putting shows on, like I did at university or even as a kid; I do it full-time now (or, let's say, "full-time" with additional mid-air finger-waggling), but it still feels an incredibly marginal and ad hoc existence centred mostly on a dialogue with a few supportive friends. I hope it doesn't sound disingenuous, because it certainly doesn't feel so, to say that ending up in Sydney, and performing at the Opera House, is so completely conceptually discontinuous with my sense of who I am and what I do that it was and remains a nearly unassimilable experience, and one that I was unbelievably fortunate to share with Cis O'Boyle, my technical manager and travelling companion, who provided exactly the right mix of company and space and challenge and, as the kids say, bare jokes. I hope one day the Festival might have me back, though I'm still not honestly sure what kind of impression I made.

Sebastien Lawson as Ash in Speed Death of the Radiant Child

The other really big deal professionally this year -- notwithstanding the pleasure I got from taking Longwave to the Lyric and then to the British Council showcase in Edinburgh -- was of course Speed Death of the Radiant Child in Plymouth: but again it's sort of at a personal level that that most resonates. If I had to pick a moment, it would be post-show one night, walking back to the flat, hand-in-hand with a member of the cast, and sensing absolutely unmistakeably the intense connection that all these actors had made with the play and with each other, and feeling for the first time in years that I belonged to a gang. Further than that, it's kind of hard to articulate: but I mean a gang as (partly) distinct from a company, because that company feeling is not so uncommon, happily, in my experience of my work. I suppose a gang because for those weeks we seemed to be able to say anything to each other, and to want to; and we seemed braver together than apart; and the play had become simply a vehicle for expressing a candour that was alive within us anyway, and a blood fealty that was irresistible in itself. Almost as if you could have lifted the play out of the situation and maybe nothing would have felt any different. Whether that's a good condition for making theatre in, I guess actually I'm not sure, but it definitely felt nice: and what in the end I was reassured to learn from the whole experience of Speed Death, the writing and the making as well as the rollin' with the homies, is that the almost suffocating intensity of my late teens and early twenties is not something I've irreversibly outgrown. I can't live in that kind of state all the time now, I'd be dead and what's worse I'd be boring; but I'm happy to know that those notes are still soundable.

As for other people's work, I can only ruefully bite my lip as I look back over my diary at the little I saw. I started 2007 with a new year's resolution to go to the theatre at least once a fortnight; well, I only came anywhere close if we're allowed to include Edinburgh in the sums. As usual, my eye is caught much more easily by films, by art; though I'm presumably about to say about both of those too that I didn't see enough this year. On the whole I guess I'm just too wrapped up in my own processes, and though I'm interested in what's happening and what other people are saying about it, I don't seem to be able to focus my attention enough to, like, book for stuff and then go to it: which, for a theatre professional, shouldn't feel like an impossibly baroque task. To have seen none of Katie Mitchell's work at the National since A Dream Play, for example, is just ludicrous (no matter how much I disliked that production -- it seems, anyway, to have been in a sense transitional). In fact this year I saw nothing at the National, nothing at the revivified Royal Court, nothing at BAC... (Mostly I'm saying this to help Andrew Haydon stop beating himself up about not having been to the Oval House...)

But ok, let's talk about the little I saw. Maker of the Year, I suppose, if we're handing that out, must be Tim Crouch: I finally caught up with An Oak Tree at Soho in March, and then of course England at the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh. His knack of developing high-concept formats with immense popular appeal is pretty much unique, and what he's able to do as an actor and performer, and as a writer, is so sensitively tuned to what his pieces need: his is a really good example of how text-based work is still possible, compellingly so, within an artistic practice that is absolutely committed to formal experiment. Tim Miller's 100 Beds at the (currently threatened) Drill Hall, and Taylor Mac's The Beast Of... in Sydney and then again at Soho, were two ravishingly life-enhancing performances, beautifully crafted and yet feeling giddily spontaneous; let me reiterate, at the risk of being tedious: Mark Ravenhill can do what he wants with his pink fountain pen: queer theatre is continuing to foment new imperatives and models of performance and it isn't going to stop just because metropolitan straight folks can just about cope these days with the concept of civil partnerships. (Steps daintily down from soapbox.)

Taylor Mac

As ever, perhaps, much of what lingers in the memory is that which is, or was, least resolved in performance -- which is why the likes of A Disappearing Number don't get a rosette from me, accomplished though that was in very many ways: flawlessness is not a theatrical concept. Pieces from this year that have continued to resonate even now include Raimund Hoghe's engrossing and still weirdly upsetting Sacre at Barbican Pit; thedead's ultimately mismanaged but awesomely brave and stimulating Apollo / Dionysus at C3; also in Edinburgh, Stewart Lee 's unnerving, repetitious, quietly coruscating stand-up, performance art at its most minusculely refined; in Nottingham, Gisele Vienne and Dennis Cooper's Kindertotenlieder, as unstintingly sensuous, daringly imagined and morally demanding a wet dream as you'll [n]ever experience; and back in London, Anna Krzystek and Lucy Cash's Still at Toynbee Studios, daring and careful and apparently made entirely without the interferences of artistic ego.

Johnny Liron in thedead's Apollo / Dionysus

If I had to choose one moment from the year, though, there's no doubt it would have to be the unassailably beautiful skateboard routine in Les 7 Doigts de la Main's Traces at the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Time stood still: that sequence had me absolutely and entirely in its thrall. I don't have any new conclusions on Les 7 Doigts since I last wrote about them: it was just a brilliant, heartstretching, magical show, which I saw at just the right moment in that long and bruising month to remind me why I got into this infuriating business in the first place.

Les 7 Doigts de la Main

In film... weeeelll, I didn't see a lot, you know... Probably my favourite cinema-related moment actually was figuring out that my flat in Edinburgh was less than five minutes' walk from the multiplex where most of the stuff I was booked for in the Film Festival was being screened; partly of course that's about my brazen love of multiplexes -- or at least some multiplexes: in particular, the ones that feel most like airports. When we were staying in a dwarf's cottage in rural Nottinghamshire touring Longwave a couple of years ago I had to pretty much throw a tantrum until I got driven into town to ride the escalators at the Cornerhouse: but that's definitely another story.

Film for Invisible Ink, Case No: 71: Base-Plus-Fog

From this end of the year, two gripping films at (nearly) either end of the spectrum are sticking in my head. David Gatten's experimental short Film for Invisible Ink, Case No: 71: Base-Plus-Fog, part of the 'Anagogic Chamber' programme at the London Film Festival, utilised an almost unimaginably (to a layperson) radical blankness and wry materialist decorum to induce a genuine sense, in this viewer at least, of the speed at which film moves: a hurtlingly stylish case study in progressive formalism, and by far the most expensive of 2007's cheap thrills. And just a couple of weeks ago I saw Sean Penn's Into the Wild: a confusing movie, alternately ravishing and banal, like a fantastic epic arthouse movie all smushed up with its own Hollywood remake. Emile Hirsch as the real-life recklessly downsizing twinkiest hobo Christopher McCandless is appealing (and visibly giving everything he has to an extremely demanding project in which he is barely offscreen for well over two hours); but he lacks the ability -- admittedly rare -- to do two things at once, to suggest tensions or imply internal struggle, which makes the film's emotional tone curiously blurry. But at its peak moment, confidently thrown away in a couple of seconds -- a shot of Hirsch's McCandless drifting naked downriver in a state of perilous contentment -- Into the Wild clinches a real and disturbing beauty (underwritten by a couple of crucial earlier actions to-camera from Hirsch) which I can't shake off: it is not quite a great film, but it has a great longing.

Cam Archer's Wild Tigers I Have Known was a ripe and idiosyncratic debut feature absolutely aglow with promise; and Jamie Bell delivered the best lead performance of the year in the incoherent but likeable Hallam Foe. But 2007 was for me dominated by three genuine masterpieces, two of which aren't yet released in the UK (but which I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival: which reminds me, the inexplicable decision to move EIFF from August to June, might just be the year's Dumbest Call). David Lynch's Inland Empire was utterly sui generis, a paranoiacally involuted video fiction in its way as deconstructive as anything lurking in the recesses of the Anagogic Chamber, and ten times as emotionally devastating as, I dunno, Brokeback Mountain. And Gus van Sant's Paranoid Park finds this most defiantly interesting director at a mid-career summit, pulling together threads from past triumphs including My Own Private Idaho and Elephant to create a tightly complex drama daringly expanded into a two-hour love poem, with all the eroticism and neurosis that implies: the year's most intellectually satisfying and aesthetically confident movie. But if, again, we're talking moments, then I have to give the nod to Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely: which I haven't written about here yet, and probably won't until it's released in April next year: but it contains one image -- amid a wildly inventive but strangely sombre collage of unforgettable pictures -- that made my whole body shake with the effort of crying and laughing at the same time: something that will stay with me forever. It is Korine's most accomplished film by far; perhaps his least eye-snagging, certainly his least provocative, and I don't know how it will fare critically or with Gummo fans (who seem a weirdly conservative bunch, some of them), but I am in awe of his creativity. There was a guy called Ted Serios, back in the 60s, who supposedly could mentally project images directly onto Polaroid film; Korine is that guy for people who grew up with Rugrats. (As Serios as your life, right? ...Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)

Mister Lonely

I can be quicker with the year's art because I really didn't see much... I have sadly (and inadvertently) got out of the habit of going to the smaller and more out-of-the-way spaces, such as the ace Matt's Gallery in Bow, that I often dropped in on when I first moved to London; these days it's only the big shows I seem to get to, which is not to my advantage. Neither of the two most exciting-looking group shows of the year quite matched expectations (though, arguably, how could they?): both the ICA's Secret Public and the Barbican's Panic Attack made for tantalising press releases but the latter was too loosely curated (though it offered some exciting individual encounters) while the former just felt too smallscale and modest to speak scrupulously for the ambitions of the era on which its attentions were trained. I always forget how small the ICA actually is: the Marina Abramovic and Video Art retrospectives a few years ago both felt enormous, but there was hardly anything to the Peter Hujar survey (which is still on, until late January, and nonetheless thoroughly worth seeing) considering it's the first major London show of his work. Matthew Barney at the Serpentine seemed similarly constrained and could not match either the hype -- which is one thing -- or the scale of his own mythological systems -- which is another.

Louise Bourgeois, Cell (Eyes and Mirrors) at Tate Modern

The best compedium show I saw was probably the fantastic Centre Pompidou Video Art 1965-2005 (at Sydney MCA) -- big, exhausting, problematic, but full of exciting work and equally exciting arguments. And the best single artist exhibition -- I know it's predictable, but... -- has to be Louise Bourgeois at Tate Modern. One is just deeply moved by the fidelity of Bourgeois's intelligence and endlessly renewed creative elan, and by the rare longevity of her practice. She is clearly incapable of a formulaic or dishonest thought, and her explicit insinuation of autobiography into the territories of psychoanalysis and feminist politics is quite exemplary: leaving the last room, which contains a whole museum's-worth of little pieces from across her career, you want to cheer and whistle and drink a toast to her immortality.

Theron Schmidt (in his horses REMIX, Camden People's Theatre, 2004)

The centre of the Bourgeois show's gravity, for me, is Room 8, where a number of the 'cells', the room-installations she's been making since the 80s, are collected. Here, as in so many different places and occasions this year, I found myself thinking about theatre spaces. All kinds of real and imaginary areas and propositions seem to announce themselves to me at the moment as kinds of theatre space, which is to say spaces which seem to support and encourage everything (or, at least, much) that I want theatre to get on and do, in terms of its social and relational functions as well as its conceptual parameters: whether it's Bourgeois's cells; or the slowly unfolding exploratory research into real and imaginary rooms (and the ideological and erotic pressures that they describe) that I've immensely enjoyed working on this year with my friend Theron Schmidt as we feel our way towards An Apparently Closed Room (the first of my Goodman Portraits series, likely to emerge next autumn); or talking with the increasingly uncontainable Tassos Stevens about game-spaces and alternate realities; or re-reading (yet again) John Berger on fields; or sitting rapt in the company of Taku Sugimoto and a couple of hundred strangers as we all wait for his next guitar note to become available...

Taku Sugimoto

Most of all, though, I find myself thinking this about blogs as theatrical spaces: about this blog, although I'm some way off the lead, to say the least; about the blogosphere in general, which, especially in relation to discourse around theatre, has blossomed magically this year, with exciting consequences that my colleagues describe twice as eloquently as I would and in a tenth of the words; but also about particular blogs that seem to evolve into exchange-spaces so close to what theatre might ideally be it's almost excruciatingly tantalising. I'm thinking not least about Dennis Cooper's blog, my involvement with which has been probably the most significant change in the pattern of my daily life this year: and that's not a typical Thompson's overstatement, I promise: it really has been a big deal, transformatively big, and the vaguest intuition of its possible ramifications has hijacked my brain and body in the middle of the night more times than I dare to remember. I appreciate for some regular readers my constant reference to DC's blog must be as exhaustingly repetitious as the wittering of someone with a schoolboy crush -- which in a way is exactly what it is -- but my proximity to this extraordinary project is as strong a feeling as I've ever had of being close to a paradigm while it's actually shifting. With all the usual warning about the content over there -- Monday brought a guro-related post that would have made Dennis Nilsen soil his doily -- I do recommend keeping an eye on this fascinating emergent space. It looks as though in the new year I may have the opportunity to do some serious thinking around the actual and potential crossover between blog spaces and theatre spaces, and I think that could be pretty interesting. For me, at least.

Meantime, to end on a note of which Dennis and the attendant Cooperative would possibly approve, let me capture for posterity one final moment I enjoyed in 2007. Please summon from your mind (or Google, which may have replaced a large part of your mind as I fear it has mine) the lyrics of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" as I introduce you to Thompson's Man of the Year. Barely pipping Barack Hussein Obama to what I hardly dare describe as pole position is my young friend Vinnie, from the increasingly ragged-looking grand dame of Russian teenboy sites, (A curious name whose derivation I've never discovered.) 19nitten is barely worth keeping an eye on these days, which makes the addition of Vinnie to its roster all the more peculiar. Anyway, here he is at his most innocuous, or least explicitly nocuous, and anyone who wants to see more can sign up over at the site -- or email me, I guess, why not? 19nitten's disclaimer insists that all its models are at least 18, but I suspect in Vinnie's case, the strains of "Happy birthday to you" may barely have ceased to reverberate around the room before he had his trousers round his ankles. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

A clearly delighted Vinnie, yesterday

While I'm bestowing such gifts, and before we get into the party-popping second half of this special post: the above is obviously short on music, given that everything that needs to be covered will be pretty comprehensively taken care of in the top 50 of the year, towards the end of the month: but here, inspired by Andrew's end-of-term posting of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's damnably irresistible version of 'Wuthering Heights', are my three favourite cover versions of the year, or at least the approximately 85% of the year that I've idly pissed up YouTube's wall:

Lev and Thumpbot have a more than decent crack at Gnarls Barkley's 'Crazy'

Mr Hopkinson's Computer favours us with some live Pixies

...and back among the hominids, the impossibly fresh-faced Muhlenberg Dynamics deliver their disastrously life-affirming version of 'Come On Eileen'.

And while I'm trawling back through the YouTube bookmarks with which this particular Prufrock appears to be measuring out his life, please enjoy -- as mentioned in dispatches --

Les 7 Doigts de la Main: a promo trailer for Traces


...ten blissful minutes in the company of Stewart Lee.

And following this commercial break:

here, at last, is part two. (OMNES:"Huzzah! God save the King!" &c.)

As if one retrospective farrago weren't enough -- and the foregoing evidence would seem to suggest that we can be sure it is -- I am compelled to encourage you to continue to face backwards just a little longer.

For this, o best beloveds, o customer base, o lost sheep and peripatetic camelids of communicable desire, this is the 100th post here at Thompson's. Let joy be unconfined! Break out the Schloer! In the deathless words of 1975 Eurovision winners Teach-In, "Try to sing a song that goes Ding Ding-a-Dong!"

Not wishing to let this landmark pass without some kind of disproportionately time-consuming commemoration, I have been casting an analytical eye over the past 99 posts, and am able to offer the following mind-alteringly significant statistics for your consideration:

FACT! Imported into a Word document, the complete (to-date) Thompson's runs to 384 pages and roughly 186000 words. This means it is pretty much exactly as long as Jane Eyre.

FACT! The word 'theatre' appears in the collated text 341 times. This is a higher frequency of occurrence than words such as 'do', 'them', 'very', and 'no'.

FACT! Despite an initial self-imposed ordinance to avoid doing so, I have used the word 'fuck' (or some variant or conjugation thereof) 15 times. Other words appearing exactly fifteen times include 'boy', 'joy' and 'Complicite'. The word 'chicken' appears 16 times, and 'Dissocia' 14 times.

By way of an entry-point to the navigation of these Bronte-sized archives, I have supplied below a list of words that appear once only in the whole history of Thompsonian endeavour. Click on them to be taken to the post wherein they are contained. Along the way, you may wish to chuckle indulgently at the risible fashions of yesteryear which the Controlling Thompson can just about be imagined wearing as he typed these ancient posts; similarly, his funny retro hairstyle, boiled sweets, etc.

The special birthday A-Z of singletons is as follows:

(Before anybody calls social services, may I reassure you that I had some help with the above exercise. Not, sadly, as per my initial plan, a small Victorian urchin lad called Smut or Pickles, rescued from the Stamford Hill workhouse to which he was sent when his advancing rickets means he couldn't go up the chimbleys no more. No, instead, it was actually the work of ten minutes with the trial version of this concordance software. It's the best fun: go on, have yourself a merry little Christmas.)

All jocularity very briefly aside, and hopefully without transmogrifying hook-line-and-sinker into Halle Berry, may I thank in particular those of you who regularly read Thompson's, leave comments, link here from your own sites, send backchannel emails, or engage in any way really with what I've been doing here. It may not always seem like it, during the longish hiatuses and such, but this blog is the most sustained single project I've ever activated, and only the sense of it being read by people I know and people I don't, and of it helping to start other conversations and other thought-processes in entirely other places, makes it anything other than a colossally self-indulgent waste of time and therms. So, there we are, thank you for banking with us.

One final favourite YouTube clip as a commemorative treat and thank-you gift, and then I'm outtahere. Unfortunately I can only link you to this, I can't embed it, but that may be a good thing: one blog can only accommodate so much greatness. All the high-faluting pontification about theatre can be safely suspended for the five minutes it takes to watch this video: nothing's ever going to match this -- particularly what I suspect may be, at around 26 seconds in, the greatest theatrical entrance since Lawrence Olivier met Danny Kaye. Ladies gentlemen & undeclareds, I give you Miss (or Near-Miss) Tandi Iman Dupree: and no, I did not keep the receipt.

Nighty night.

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