Sunday, December 21, 2008

It not the occasion grieve and also mourns

Do you hear what I hear? Well, crumbs, if that's "Holiday For Bells" from Bert Kaempfert's Christmas Wonderland (the traditional festive music of choice of the Paternal Thompson Whom God Preserve during the seventies, and therefore the music I associate most in the whole world with this happy season), then it must be time for the Controlling Thompson to bring the security shutters down on the Bank, meander home through chestnut-strewn urchin-bethronged Dickensian streets, and dig out an elderly bottle of schnapps that smells like scented drawer liners. Ho to the ho to the ho. Fa to the la to the la to the la to the la to the... oh, you get the picture. The dear Christ enters in, sits down and starts singing about gold. You can see: the round green door. ...Wait, I seem to have fallen through a portal into Melbourne House's Hobbit adventure game for the ZX Spectrum. Now I'm going to have to hang around here until sunrise, waiting for the trolls to petrify. Again.

Oh, well, in the meantime, I suppose I'd better crack on with the official Thompson's Christmas post. This has come around a bit quickly, to be honest; I've only just started writing another, absolutely yule-free, post, which I'd hoped to have up by now: but other things have intervened. So that one stays in the draft folder for a while. Not sure if there's going to be any internet juice to speak of at the homestead of the Paternal Thompson Whom God Preserve -- he's been fighting an epic battle with TalkTalk (the phone providers, not the superlative 80s band) over, to cut a very long story very short, their colossal incompetence: and as a result is stranded in a kind of communications limbo which, I suspect, he's secretly rather enjoying, but which may cut me off likewise from the warps and wefts of the 21st century for the next week or so. So, my point is, this will certainly be the last Thompson's post before The Big Day; it might be reasonable to expect the post that's currently on hold to appear here towards the close of play on the 29th. Followed in pretty short order, on the 31st I expect, by the year's Furtive 50 of notable albums -- back by overwhelming public demand. (Hi, Nick Jesper, & thanks for the overwhelming demand.) So here follow a few odds and ends in lieu of the All-Star Record Breakers Christmas Special that would in years gone by have cheered us on our way. (Wow, that's the fourth gobbet of gratuitous nostalgia so far, in the space of two paragraphs. I remembered that line of John Berger's the other day: "The past grows gradually around one, like a placenta for dying." That's what this blog should be called, A Placenta For Dying. ...Hmm. Anyone for trifle?)

Firstly, a couple of recommendations for those who are struggling with their last-minute Christmas shopping. Neither of these suggestions will solve the problem, as both involve mail order and can hardly be guaranteed to arrive in time: but, while you're surveying the walnut cosies and electronic toenail organisers in John Lewis on Oxford Street tomorrow evening, or staring in slack-jawed astonishment at the tumbleweed bobbing lazily down the evacuated aisles of your local Woolworths, you could at least comfort yourself with looking forward to those exciting items that you know will be delivered to you in the early days of the new year. 

Firstly, Rajni Shah has published a really gorgeous book & DVD documenting her performance 'Dinner With America'; it includes a substantial extract from the interview that I did here with Rajni a few months ago -- worth seeing not least for the comedy value of a page that's really just me talking about nudity in performance, with Rajni managing to make only two interjections in my monologue: viz., "[laughs]" and "Mm." Still, the remarkable images by Manuel Vason, and the accompanying DVD with three short films made by Lucy Cash, more than compensate for the effusion of plain text for which I am dismally responsible. The book and the DVD together cost a tenner and can be secured through Rajni's web site or, shortly, at Unbound: highly recommended, whether or not you've seen the piece itself.

Secondly -- and this one arrives in a tube, which surely means I have you at 'hello' -- the estimable Andrew Brewerton (of whose Raag Leaves for Paresh Chakraborty I made a not unhallooing fuss some months ago) is the first poet to be published in a new series of broadsides from force-of-nature Glenn Storhaug's excellent Five Seasons Press. The poem, a gloriously slippery, sexy, tuneful extrusion from certain fragments of Psalm 81 , is thus published on a single large sheet of toothsome paper with a phantom lipstick kiss endorsing its message: think 'Poems on the Underground', but way, way upscale and a fair bit more sensually alive than you'll normally see on the Northern line. The publication isn't yet announced on the Five Seasons web site but I dare say if you email Glenn via the address provided, negotiations might already be entered into. I'm excited to see what else emerges in this series; this is the loveliest imaginable beginning. At any rate, keep an eye on Five Seasons: evidently their relationship with Arts Council England may be at an end, and subscriptions will therefore be sought for future publications. People of Thompson's, this means you.

Another premature manifestation of Noel Baba's giddying beneficence presented itself quite unexpectedly at about ten past three this morning. (Those who fear this is about to lurch into a Sally Jesse Raphaelesque confession about having been molested by Santa can rest easy: it's not, at least not this year.) I was startled into waking by the unexpected sound of the sting that used to end Newsround. [Incidentally, for those who click on that link: I think I'm a little bit in love with Mr James Tye, director of the British Safety Council, who is featured about 1'45" in; seldom can a man have so magnificently emanated the pure essence of safety.] I'd fallen (quite briefly) asleep with the radio on, and missed the start of what turned out to be a whole three hour sequence of programmes in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, of which regular Thompson's readers will know I am a foaming, gibbering, occasionally insensate fan: and which -- specifically, the restlessly ingenious John Baker -- had created that musical morsel for a programme of earlier vintage called New Worlds. I'd heard almost none of this stuff before and it was as exciting to happen upon it (or be happened upon by it) as it was infuriating not to have heard about it beforehand. Happily, I can at least be unto you a sign. (*straightens cardboard and tinsel halo*) All three hours of this Radiophonic programming, including a fabulous opening documentary from 1971 -- cheerily called "Electronic Tunesmiths" -- can be Listened [to] Again at the BBC web site for the next six days. So perhaps while you're preparing your matterhorn of sprouts on Christmas Day itself, or your dad, dressed as Richard Serra, is causing a rivulet of molten brandy butter to trickle down the ramps of a model Guggenheim in your kitchen, you can be whistling imperviously along with -- frankly -- some of the scariest melonfarming music ever created.

More likely, however, you are, as I am, interested only in one crucial cultural item this Christmas and nothing else:

What more is needed? I mean, sure, I've been grappling with what is undoubtedly the Book Of The Year (were we doling out such baleful rosettes), John Tilbury's exhausting -- no, I mean exhaustive; no, wait, stet -- biography of Cornelius Cardew, arguably the most important figure in the British musical avant garde of the past fifty years, and certainly the most fascinating and remarkable in his persistent and intrepid pursuit of a public political role and substance for his work, a quest which took him on one of the most extraordinary artistic journeys it's possible to imagine. Tilbury and Cardew were close colleagues and Tilbury's strenuous diligence in accounting thoroughly and scrupulously for Cardew's life and work in all the contexts to which they are relevant produces a profoundly sober and intermittently inspirational thousand-page volume (edited, incidentally, by holder of the Thompson's Order of Merit, Harry Gilonis) of inexpressible value and importance. ...But when push comes to shove, the Ooh-Aah bird will always get the nod at this time of year.

Now: longtime visitors will know that I have previously posted end-of-year reviews and suchlike, summarising the high points and amplifying (sometimes almost infinitely) on my misgivings about everything else. No such flummery for 2008 (except for the record reviews which will follow in the dying hours of the year): I think I wrote about pretty much everything I wanted to write about, so feel free to trawl back and create your own highlights reel. (You may find it useful to play "A Day Like This" by Elbow for additional auld lang syne brownie points.) The only thing that's missing is a note about Ontroerend Goed's Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen: which I didn't write about at the time, having promised to review it for Total Theatre. I then failed to write that review (in the eerie absence of the usual gentle nagging from the editor), and the invisibility of that show on this blog has become as a consequence a deplorable lacuna -- it's the best, and certainly the most important, thing I saw all year, and I ought to have made here some attempt to explain why. I'd also have liked to post on my most recent experience of (what strikes me -- and others -- as) highly significant theatre work -- namely, the 10th birthday gig of the London Improvisers Orchestra, weirdly on board HMS President -- but that'll have to wait until you and I are having a drink together: which can only be a matter of moments, surely. I'm planning a post for the early new year that will touch on Once And For All anyway. Aside from that, I think we're done. Film of the year was Wall-E, obviously, and I'd have to say the art show I got most out of in 2008 was Tracey Emin at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, though I say that not yet having seen the current White Cube Mason's Yard show by Miroslaw Balka, of whom I am a real fan; I'll be sure to get along to that in January.

As for the more general vicarly musings in which one is tempted to indulge: well, I dunno. The year has ended bumpily, really, though I've been cheered up by some recent conversations: including an illuminating chat about Hey Mathew with Melanie Wilson and, before that, a brilliantly timely and generous pep-talk from Richard Lee at the Jerwood Space; and a couple of meetings about possible projects for the first half of 2010, both of which are making my heart beat a little faster. Also, Time Out says I've had a good year, so it must be true.

Certainly I'm pleased with the work I've done: ...Sisters was a big deal and a worthwhile project; Hey Mathew was, for all the problems around its reception (and some around its making), probably the most potentially important piece of theatre I've yet made, and certainly the most extraordinary process I've ever found myself inside: and though I'm still trying to come to terms with it all I certainly feel nonetheless, at base, a genuine pride and pleasure at having taken the risks we did, at having leapt into that void; and At Home, last weekend, ended up being a quiet joy -- raggedy-ass, seat-of-the-pants stuff, but I relished the informality and the connection, and loved working for the first time as a performer with the extraordinary Lucy Ellinson. There's been some fun teaching, some frightening and exciting poetry gigs... 'S all good.

The moan and/or fret -- because of course there has to be a moan and/or fret -- is the same one as before: the fear, not simply on behalf of my own frustration as an artist but on behalf of the culture we're supposedly trying to build and support together, that I'm more and more bumping my head on the underacknowledged glass ceiling of experimental and, particularly, devised work. Funnily enough (or not), this is exactly the feeling with which I ended 1998: that there was something deeply worrying about how the work I was doing was getting squeezed into smaller and smaller formats. Six actors (and two rabbits) in ...Sisters sounds like a big enough piece but we were crammed (to good effect, and with no discomfort, but still...) into the Gate -- a venue which punches way above its weight and which is currently run by genuinely brilliant people, but is still a wee little space when it comes to being able to make pictures, and especially (and I think this is a crucial technology in theatre) being able to make more than one thing happen on stage at the same time. And then Hey Mathew struggled to breathe at Toynbee, having discovered its perfect size and shape the week before at Theatre in the Mill -- a show with one performer isn't necessarily a small piece spatially any more than it is in its reach and reverberation. And then Lucy and I find ourselves arsing around in a terraced house in Canterbury. Which is great: but all the time, all through this year, I've found myself hankering after more. More space, more time, more people, more attention, more weight, more volume. More. Not because small can't be beautiful and not because small can't also be big, as big as big is, bigger sometimes even than that. Not because profound and important things can't happen in tiny spaces. (I nicked an exercise off James Yarker for my students at Rose Bruford a few weeks ago: make a performance in the palm of your hand. Some of the best stuff I've seen all year.) But: alongside all the arguments about what scale can do, what we can do and make and imply using the multiplicities of bigger space and bigger companies of artists, what other stories become imaginable with that level of access, alongside all of that, and all of the urge to be developing as an artist in ways that aren't only about economy and refinement but are about the ability to occupy less marginal and less constrained situations with authority and passion, alongside all of this, there's a question, isn't there?, about how my generation, the first generation to grow up with devising as a more-or-less mainstream practice, is ever going to come of age, is ever going to be asked to adapt itself to the biggest and most complex challenges that come along with our central spaces and our central concerns as makers and as people. I'm not going to get into this all again but, yeah, I absolutely believe that devising can be as responsive -- no, more responsive -- to the kinds of currents and dialogues that emerge (or used to) in the form of 'state of the nation' plays as more traditional writer-led practices are thought to be. That's a clumsy way of saying, big bold brave relevant stage-filling work shouldn't only be the preserve of top-down playwrights, and the playful and the decorative and the sweetly trivial shouldn't be the horizon of the aspirations of devisers. This is not to say that I'm sick of working upstream. I'm not sick of anything, except feeling like a 6'2" director in a six-foot box. My neck hurts, that's all. What is it Leo says that makes the President rediscover his mojo in season 1 episode 19 of The West Wing? "I'm going where I want to because a man stands up." That's it, that's exactly it. I want to stand up, and I can't, quite.

And then I think of the most intellectually and viscerally exciting experiences I've had of making work this year, and they've all been in the smallest of places, buzzing with ideas and passion and hunger and bravery and the furthest reaches of intimacy and desire: improvising in hallways and bedrooms and the spaces under tables; performing concrete poetry on the top deck of the bus; finding a whole new matrix of possibilities in a piece of clothing or in the space between the earbuds of an iPod. The best thing I did all year took a minute and a half: I sent Jonny Liron an email and said Do you want to come and talk to me about this project I'm doing? Over the last six months, Jonny's turned everything upside down for me in the most exhilarating way, and it's good to keep remembering how dismissive he is, and more than that how bored, of the old models for which I still slightly hanker. He has no use for any of the established forms and contracts and locations, and though I think I'm right to be not, in fact, done with them yet -- while I think I'm still interested in how the fixed, designated theatre space can continue to fulfil a civic function, and how the idea of the scripted play is not yet wholly exhausted, and how stories can be conceived and articulated that don't merely redescribe the same witless redundancies that have churned around our mainstream theatre culture for so long -- it's fantastic to be constantly reminded that, faced with all the weight of Arts Council applications to be completed, and marketing copy to be written as pretty much the first thing in the creative process, and endless hoops to be jumped through at the behest of even the most supportive and forward-thinking organizations, one can simply turn off the computer, head out into the world, meet up with a friend, and make theatre, right there, in the middle of the street, in the blink of an eye, the palm of the hand. I swear to Cthulhu there's more of theatre in a single dangerous kiss than in every performance of August: Osage County laid end to end (which I'm sure is how they feel anyway), for all that play's magnificent girth.

But that's not me talking myself out of wanting to bust out of this ceiling. If by doing so I did nothing more important or interesting than let some air in, that would still be worth it. Ten years ago, in 1998, I felt like this; by the end of 1999 I'd made The Consolations: seven actors, big pictures, the Place theatre, a two and a half hour show. Sure, the guy who with astounding generosity took it on himself to produce it is probably still paying it off (*wince*); and we all worked for four months for no money and I'm not in that place any more, none of us is. And the consequence was, come 2000, we were seriously in the red, and what could we do but go to Edinburgh with a show that could be performed in people's own houses... And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, or somesuch Festive nonsense. I have no idea what I just talked myself into, or out of.

There's work to do. That's for sure. ...Well, good.

On which note, time for holidays, starting now.

Thanks, though, before I amscray, to everyone who comes here, for whatever reason, and especially to everyone who comments -- I know I'm bad at replying, but I really do appreciate your engagement. As for my regal Christmas message, I hope you'll forgive me for a copy-and-paste job, but I can't do better than the following paragraph, which currently greets subscribers to the oddly named but affectionately regarded Teens Boys World: pretty much the last bastion of artistic endeavour among all the otherwise styleless and tedious sites directed at those of us who like staring humbly at pictures of unclothed 19-year-old boys who appear, illusorily but most kindly, to be pleased to see us. Their eccentrically translated Christmas greeting is my envoi, my little gift to you, in the hope that you'll carry with you these resounding words, and warm yourself by them as the year dwindles to its end. Thus:

Christmas. New Year. 2009 year. We all know, that it will be not the easiest year. Crisis will concern many of you. Very much many. Also there will be many problems. But it not the occasion grieve and also mourns. The life proceeds also it is fine! We wish that your christmas desires were executed. That the pleasure, success and belief always were with you in New Year. Problems and difficulties will pass. You will manage with them. And all will be good. And differently also cannot be. Let smiles of young boys and their charming beauty will help you to live this year adequately and without greater losses. Love to you, happiness, success and pleasure in new 2009 year!

Certes, Tiny Tim couldn't have said it better himself.

Right, I'm off to mount my scooter and sound my hooter in pursuit of yonder star. See you after the thing with the chimney and the fat guy.


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

"For in his days was the earth divided..."

Every so often I'm asked by someone to trace to its origins my professional interest in theatre. My stock answer to this is that everything changed on the evening in 1992 when, as a student, I saw for the first time Complicite's Street of Crocodiles at the National; I describe how I travelled back that night from London to Cambridge, my companion and I both shocked into silence by the ineffable beauty and the deep emotional impact of what we'd just seen, and how I stayed up till dawn, scrawling frantically on big bits of paper stuck all over my walls as I tried to figure out how the company did it. (I dare say this anecdote has been inflated in the retelling over the years but I'm hoping it'll stick nonetheless, so that when the biopic of my remarkable life is finally made, there's at least one scene in which something actually happens.) This post, however, isn't about Complicite, but about an earlier theatrical experience that on reflection I suspect may have had an equally formative influence on my thinking about the medium and its context. 

It was, to borrow a line, twenty years ago today that the final curtain fell on a production that I acted in at school: a play by the writer and academic Mick Mangan called The Earth Divided. The play had previously been presented at Riverside Studios, under the direction of a young whippersnapper called Stephen Daldry. A springily written piece set mostly in 1607, and full of ribald wit and anarcho-communist musings, The Earth Divided could hardly be said to have 'school play' written all over it -- I mean, I'd been in Hobson's Choice a year or two earlier -- but Mangan's college friend Roland Clare, who was already a pretty longstanding member of the English department at Bristol Grammar School (where he still teaches, these twenty years on), was entrusted with the realization of an expanded version of the work. Looking back on it, it seems a pretty  peculiar thing to have happened at all -- a very adult, deeply political, and in sensibility highly contemporary, fringe play by a Sheffield-based writer turning up on stage as 1988's Christmas show at a relatively conservative secondary school in Bristol.

How much of that oddity I was aware of at the time, I don't know: but I was certainly keenly aware that this was something very different. Different from the usual creaky rep classics that were generally considered appropriate for schoolkids to work on (though Roland had form in this respect -- it's an abiding regret that I was too young to have seen his 1980 production of Strindberg's A Dream Play, which I'm sure was extraordinary); but different as a prospect for me too. I had some interest in theatre at this stage -- I was 15 -- but only really in terms of the license for showing-off that it conveyed; I wasn't serious about it -- though I guess I must have had some inchoate sense of wanting to take it seriously, as I remember feeling a bit indignant when I turned up one lunchtime to audition and Roland said to me, not unkindly: "You do realise this isn't a comedy?" (Likewise I fairly glowed with pleasure when after the audition he observed, with no little surprise: "Actually you're rather subtle...")

At any rate, I was cast, in the toothsome role of a fire-and-brimstone Puritan called Ebenezer Scorton (or, as one character rechristens him, "Ebenezer Scrotum" -- again, heady stuff for a school play; as Roland's then-young daughter observed: "It's very rude, isn't it, that bit about Ebenezer Testicles"). And so that Autumn term became dominated, in my heart and mind at least, by work on the play and everything that went with it.

L to R: Cathie Ackroyd, CG (looking a bit like Jobriath), Daniel Pearce

In fact perhaps the most significant and lasting insight that I gained into theatre-making during those weeks was the crucial importance to the work of that nebulous-sounding "everything that [goes] with it". In other words, that there is the play -- the text, the acting, the design, (in this case) the songs, the physical production, and so on; but critically, there's also a microculture that both arises out of this work and nurtures and to some extent incubates it. Usually that cultural aura is missing in school-level drama -- and, for that matter, in plenty of professional productions: you turn up, do your work, learn your lines, a production is gradually formed: job done. It's sort of necessarily the case, I suppose, in the context of a school play, where work is crammed into lunchtimes and free periods and occasional hours after school or at weekends.

In the case of The Earth Divided, however, we all (or nearly all) shared a sense that something bigger was happening -- not bigger in scale, but bigger in aspiration and more dilated in terms of its receptivity to the richness of possibility around it. In my case I think it mattered very much that, for the first and perhaps only time in my life, I was spending a lot of time with people who were all two or three years older than me, who were either sixth-formers or staff, and who were therefore capable of creating between themselves more equal adult relationships than I'd been exposed to before. Partly this is about a kind of informality that might seem quite trivial were I to try and describe it: but even then I think I was producing out of it a bunch of observations about ensemble, about collaboration, about boundaries becoming fluid and to some extent negotiable.

Dan Balint-Kurti and Mike Davison

The other thing that this connected to was politics. At 15 I was pretty much politically null, save for a vague sense of right-on-ness which might not have arisen in me at all had I not been increasingly aware of the wider ramifications of liking boys. Suddenly now I found myself sitting around a dinner table with people having adult conversations that were inquisitive, sometimes argumentative, and full of information that I didn't know. I don't just mean political information, though that was certainly an element; it was an exposure to ideas about art and its applications. At one level, I was merely having my teenage horizons broadened (in a way that in itself I was very fortunate to experience then -- I think a lot of people probably don't get their minds blown quite like that until they make it to university, if they do). But more importantly (from this vantage), I was starting to make connections -- a process that's political in itself. The semi-overtly anticapitalist politics of the play obviously connected with the sense of ensemble and of fluid hierarchy that I was experiencing; the turbulent free play of ideas was connected with a deeper engagement with certain values and commitments implied by those ideas at an emotional level; all of this, the political life of the play and the political life of the culture that was emanating from our work on it, was threaded through with my profound and unspeakable crush on one of the older boys in the cast; above all, we were all singing together, playing music, travelling together, eating together, and this constant quiet reinforcement of the possibilities inherent in exactly that togetherness was incredibly impressive and exciting to someone who'd grown up an only child and remained, frankly, something of a freakazoid, beset by fear and shyness and overcompensating with a lot of frantic competitive signalling of various kinds. If that competitive impulse remained in me even through this process -- and I know it did -- it could at least express itself not in smug (and self-defeating) one-upmanship, but in contributing to this group experience. For once, it wasn't all about me; and yet nor was it about the extreme self-denial that was the other of the binary states which I had thought were all I had access to.

At the centre of all this was Roland Clare himself, and the sense that he was not only director of the play but also custodian, or perhaps merely curator, of this cultural halo. Roland's one of those set-apart schoolteachers for whom probably everyone, if they're lucky, has an equivalent (I was exceptionally fortunate, I had two such, at different times): the pedagogical figure who makes everything different. A fine musician himself and an ex-member of a touring theatre company, Roland's gifts as a teacher were, and I'd bet still are, the gifts of a natural theatre maker. He makes magical things happen: which is partly to say (as any theatre maker worth their salt will confess), he creates and is careful to preserve a quietly playful space that will attract serendipitous events; and he then behaves as if those events were exactly what he expected to happen all along. (My home theatre pieces, which depend partly on similar technologies, developed partly, I'm sure, out of trying to figure out what made Roland able to do what he did, and it's no coincidence that he's seen all but the last of those shows and many of them have played in his house: indeed, I notoriously demolished his kitchen table -- negligently but not wilfully -- during a performance of The Tempest chez lui.) An example that lodges in the mind: noting that it would be expensive and difficult to create a staircase to join the two layers of the split-level set of The Earth Divided, Roland set out one lunchtime to find such a staircase. He returned half an hour later, mission accomplished -- a local department store was shutting down and happy to donate a staircase that turned out to be of exactly the right dimensions. (It's equally characteristic to find that, in recounting an anecdote about Roland, one starts to wonder whether one actually dreamed it. I'm pretty sure I didn't, in this case.)

It would be easy to write on and on in praise of Roland and in recognition of his exemplary impact on my own self-discovery as a person and as an artist. He certainly deserves thanks as public as these for making me start reading the novels of Russell Hoban when I was 13 -- the perfect age for a queer freakazoid kid to be exposed to Kleinzeit; likewise there should be some record of the instance of his sometimes extremely mordant humour when, visiting me in hospital the day after my suicide attempt (aged 17), he brought me a bag of Leonard Cohen tapes to cheer me up. I also recall frequently and fondly the spelling test he set us, in what would now be called Year 9, in which the answers to questions 14, 15, 16 and 17 were, respectively, "quartz", "quince", "seize" and "dissect". (A joke for the laterally-minded Francophone, which still makes me grin like a loon every time I think about it.)

I'm sure I'm failing in my attempt at a thumbnail portrait of this beautiful man, and I won't extend it, but I want to try and get it right because the more I think about The Earth Divided, as the years pass, the more I understand what Roland taught me about directing: not so much in terms of actually getting the play onto the stage, the details and mechanics of which have not imprinted themselves as indelibly as all that on my memory; but in terms of creating a company out of a sense of company (and out of a strongly but tacitly implied sense that it would be unthinkable to do anything individually that worked against the highest interests of that company), and actually more broadly about how theatre is a place teeming with ideas and alive with the polyvalency of those ideas, sussurating with the electricity that can flow through the connections between them; how when the play or the piece on the inside of the process is perfectly and expansively matched by a working culture on the outside of it -- or, more accurately, facing outwards from it -- the distinction between artifice and authenticity becomes untenable, and drama can then speak directly and compellingly about the relations that we make between ourselves and it, and between ourselves and each other.

I don't know for sure whether Mick Mangan took the title of The Earth Divided directly from Genesis (the Bible-bit, not the baldy band) or from the lyrics to Leon Rosselson's song about the Diggers, "The World Turned Upside Down" (variously recorded by Billy Bragg, Dick Gaughan, the Oyster Band, Utah Phillips and others), though I see -- I had forgotten -- that they're quoted in the programme:
...this earth divided we will make whole
So it will be a common treasury for all.
What I do know, and remain grateful for (and awed by), is that the experience of working as a teenager on The Earth Divided was the beginning of a long journey for me -- one that still feels barely begun -- in trying to discover what part theatre can play in securing precisely that common treasury, and the extension of social justice and civic remodelling that that aspiration bespeaks. What's more, it was certainly that experience that led me to start suspecting -- and I remain ever more convinced that this is so -- that theatre is uniquely placed to help initiate and support the great task of the imagination that that programme requires. To the casual observer we would presumably have looked just like a bunch of schoolkids sitting around talking animatedly about Aleister Crowley over pizza, or playing a ramshackle twelve bar blues together (n.b. The Earth Divided is, regrettably, still the only production I've worked on that's spawned its own band -- oh, remind me to tell you about the time we nearly played with Shirley Bassey...), or crammed into a car listening to the new album by some emerging band called R.E.M.; but in fact we were plotting a revolution -- one that seems to become both more urgent and more plausible by the day. I don't know much about what's become of most of the Earth Divided gang, and I don't imagine they all necessarily recall it in quite those overheated terms: but I don't doubt they all remember it with affection; I'm sure they know even better now what we all guessed then -- that we were doing something pretty special; and above all, I'm certain they're reassured to know that, in the twenty years since we last all saw each other, hundreds and hundreds of kids have spent significant portions of their lives sitting in a room with Roland Clare, getting themselves ready to change the world.

Amos Miller and Mike Davison

Monday, December 15, 2008

...but the Controlling Thompson loved him

Only a mildly wonky but ultimately rather agreeable trip to Canterbury to perform (twice) a semi-improvised farrago called At Home with my dear pal and compadre Lucy Ellinson -- and, before that, the few days of preparatory frenzy entailed thereby -- has kept me from dropping in here as soon as I'd have wished to mark the loss to this fragile planet of yet another of the Controlling Thompson's favourite human beings. (Note to Death, if you're reading: put the sickle down for a moment, bozo, I'm running out of heroes here.)

You'll probably already know, then, that Oliver Postgate, creator (or co-creator) of such peerless children's tv animations as Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and Pogle's Wood, and a writer and craftsman of greater ambit even than this top-line resumé describes, died last Tuesday, aged 83. Not all Thompson's readers may, however, be aware of my own brief connection with Oliver, and rather than duplicate the potted obits and encomia that have rightly been published and broadcast over the past few days, it might perhaps be a better use of this space to describe that personal experience. For reasons that will become clear, it might be seen as a rather impertinent blob of divulgences, but I trust that my limitless respect and affection for Oliver and everything he stood for won't for a minute be obscured.

When, in the early spring of 2007, I conceived my solo performance Hippo World Guest Book -- a verbatim piece about a real web site frequented by hippopotamus enthusiasts (and their detractors) -- two things became dauntingly clear very early on. Firstly, that there would be a large amount of expositional material for the front end of the piece, which was certainly indispensible but likely also to be indigestible; secondly, that what I feared might seem a rather drily, or even rebarbatively, 'conceptual' piece might well benefit from being warmed up in some way, so as to make it a little softer and more fluid as it entered its audience's perceptual airspace. Quite quickly I hit on what seemed like the right solution: to get someone, ideally someone with a recognizable and trusted voice, to narrate that exposition, as a sort of taped introduction while I set up my props &c. on stage. Figuring out who the best person to approach would be took slightly longer: not because Oliver Postgate wasn't the glaringly obvious choice -- for almost any British person of my generation, his voice was both as familiar as a parent's and as trustworthy and timeless as God's -- but because one is always nervous of approaching persons who have loomed so large.

Eventually, though, I summoned the courage to send him an email, through his web site. I'd discovered his site a few months previously -- it's still there and still worth visiting, not least because it collects much of his political and polemical writing, some of which had been blog posts for the New Statesman. These pieces can seem surprising at first: their tone is perhaps not as unshakeably genial as you might expect from the inventor of Ivor the Engine or Professor Yaffle, though their titles can sometimes seem to place them in a lineage of affably nonconformist -- and thoroughly, even parochially, English -- light essay: they're called things like "Where Are We Up To Now?" and "Let's Not Go On Being Stupid"... But the analysis and, at times, the language is sharp, and the strength of feeling behind them is unmistakeable. The piece on Trident, from 2006, is possibly the best I've read on that topic. Not everything he says in these essays quite hits the nail on the head but of course in their favour is a certain element of being delighted that they exist, and are published, at all; while we await the release from embargo of Tony Hart's visionary manifesto for a third Situationist International, Postgate's political and current affairs writings -- sane, salutory and wonderfully energised -- are undoubtedly to be celebrated, and have been too little recognized in the obituaries elsewhere.

Anyway, that's exactly the cover under which I made my overture to Oliver in the spring of '07: I wanted him to know how much I appreciated that Trident piece, and happened to mention also that, were he willing, I'd love to discuss with him a project I was working on, etc. etc. He was kind enough to email me back, though to be honest I'd have struggled to be bowled over, exactly, by his enthusiasm for the idea. It was pretty clear even at that stage that he knew that his time was short and he wasn't keen to waste any of it. "Basically," he wrote to me in that first message, "whether I say something depends on what it is I am to say and whether I would be heard dead saying it, which is quite likely as I have inadvertently grown old and variously ill." Nonetheless he agreed to take a look at the text I was hoping he'd read, and a correspondence began.

As our dialogue continued, much of his initial wariness and (gently ironic) curmudgeonliness dissipated, though he was absolutely clear about what was, and wasn't, on. He insisted on making some rewrites to the script: some of which were clear and welcome improvements; others were pedantic but not objectionable; a couple, I thought, were deleterious: and I tentatively but politely said so, and sent him a final version which incorporated those changes he'd made that I thought were OK, but reverted to my original where necessary. This finalised text he received without further specific comment, which I hoped was a good sign.

I'd assumed I'd have to go to Broadstairs to record him, but he had the apparatus to hand to be able to record an mp3 at home, and so in due course he sent me a cd with a couple of takes. It probably almost goes without saying that the version he recorded was not the one I'd sent him, but the one he'd previously sent me. Possibly the realization that he'd quietly ignored my amendments influenced how I heard that first take; at any rate, I didn't much like it, it was a little curt and unmellifluous. I well remember that heart-sinking feeling: was I going to have to go back to him with notes, or, even worse, confess that I didn't think I could use his versions at all? But then, track two, the second take, began: and it was beautiful. Ineffably warm and generous and suffused with exactly the kindness that so distinguished his work for children -- a kindness that necessarily vibrated with a sense of secrecy and mischief, a sort of intimacy that glows in the heart of all the best storytelling and, dare one say it, much of the best political thinking. It was exactly what the show needed.

Even from there, it wasn't plain sailing -- he wanted approval of the music that I intended to layer his voice over (following, apparently, a finger-burning episode from years before: "I once read some Noggin at a ghoulish fiasco in Sheffield and they planted a putative guitarist to accompany me with heavy chords"... -- one can certainly see why he might have been reluctant to let me have my unregulated way with his recorded voice). Moreover, he quite insistently stipulated that he wasn't to be credited: that I was at liberty to confirm to anybody who asked that, yes, it was his voice; but that I wasn't to offer the information unsolicited. This, I suppose, was partly to ensure that we didn't use his name as a promotional device, particularly perhaps if the material of the show itself was not easily compatible with the benign, family-friendly associations his name might be expected to conjure. (His inference on this point was not by any means inaccurate.) Still, it left a curious atomsphere of furtiveness around his involvement, which I slightly regretted, though I quite understood his concerns. -- It's on this point, obviously, that I feel a little awkward about posting this stuff here: but I can't see that it matters now, not really.

At any rate, the end-product was worth every sticklesome moment of our collaboration, and even at my most downcast, when the show itself, during its Edinburgh run, was being kicked almost to death by tin-eared, feeble-hearted critics, I always felt restored, defrosted, to hear Oliver's voice (and Graeme Koehne's music) coming over the speakers, leading the audience by the hand into the strange world of the piece. To hear him was poignant even at the time -- as he himself warned me in his first email, "my voice is grislier than of yore"; listening back to it on the day he died was almost unbearable: but still, incredibly, beautiful and oddly elevating.

Not long after our brief collaboration ended -- and with it our correspondence -- Oliver was the guest on Desert Island Discs. His choices were much as you'd expect: in other words, mostly not at all what you'd expect. As I sat enthralled by the programme, hearing him tell in highly abbreviated form the colourful life story that he narrates with remarkable skill and candour in his genuinely wonderful autobiography Seeing Things (the audiobook version of which is probably the nicest gift you could ever buy for whatever fiddly bits of neuro-string connect your brain to your ears), I felt as if I were listening to a close friend. It made me sad and happy in equal measure to realise pretty shortly afterwards that everyone listening would almost certainly have been feeling the same thing.

After Hippo World Guest Book was put to bed, I wrote one last time to Oliver to thank him again for his contribution: and this time, there was no hint of grumpiness or impatience in his reply -- just delight that I was delighted, and pleasure at having done a good job. Throughout our exchange, and despite my contrary insistence, he had always refused to even discuss a fee. "I will either do whatever-it-is for nothing, or not at all," he'd said at the start, and now, at the end of it all, he said so again. "Just buy your hippo a big bag of good grass for me."

It's difficult to know whether to even attempt a paragraph in which I try to convey my sense of Oliver Postgate's importance, not just to me but to the wider culture, at least during the time that his work was being widely broadcast. One can only sound hyperbolic in relation to what was, nevertheless, an almost indescribable level of achievement. I really think there's no more important work that can be done than telling children stories that unite the virtues of impeccable craftsmanship, the courage of the imagination taken seriously, and the intensely alive, subversive, liberating potential of kindness at its furthest and most virtuosic reaches. For me, Jim Henson and Oliver Postgate are two of the very most important cultural figures of the past fifty years, and the deep impact of their pioneering bravery will still be reverberating years after countless Nobel laureates and Oscar winners have been utterly forgotten.

As I did with Ken Campbell, I thought I'd post a couple of audio clips that you might find it hard to track down in other places. (Lord knows if you need reminding how good Ivor the Engine is, or Bagpuss, there's plenty at YouTube. Worth also taking a look, though, while you're there, at Alchemists of Sound, a 2003 documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, to which Postgate lends his voice. Great stuff all round.)

So here, first of all, is that Hippo World Guest Book intro, in its final version. (The music is from Graeme Koehne's Inflight Entertainment, by the way. So, no big guitar chords there.) And then, an episode from 1998 of Ben Moor's wonderful radio series Elastic Planet, which Postgate narrated. He was a bit dismissive of this series when I asked him about it, but his voice works perfectly in it for all the reasons that I think it worked perfectly for Hippo World too. 'The Shape' is one of my favourite episodes, and features not only Postgate but also another great communicator from what I'm certain really was a non-illusory golden age of children's tv: Johnny Ball.

Please, enjoy these two snippets of marginalia from a truly great man. I'll be back here before you know it.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Guess what they're selling at the happiness counter

Brrrrr. Winter draws on, as they used to not be allowed to say on the Home Service, and thoughts here at Thompson’s Bank -- we’re still waiting for our bail-out money, by the way, Mr Darling -- turn towards the year’s end. With the coming fortnight promised pretty much exclusively to the making of At Home, my project with Lucy Ellinson for Threshold, I fear the blog’s present somnolence is unlikely to be shaken overmuch between now and the end of the year. I’m planning a couple of substantial posts: one on the concept of sexual orientation (both in and out of artistic contexts), and one in commemoration of a personally significant anniversary, or more accurately the basically insignificant anniversary of a personally momentous event. That’ll take us to Christmas, I guess (unless Mr Pete Postlethwaite is of the contrary opinion, in which case, we might have to think again).

I’m in two minds about attempting a Furtive 50 this year (for new visitors: in previous years such as 2007 and, oh, let's see, 2006, I’ve posted during December a feature on favourite albums from the preceding twelve months); these posts have received gratifyingly warm responses and even helped with readers’ Christmas shopping a time or two, I believe – but it’s disproportionately time-consuming to do and I’ve had much less of my attention on new music in the second half of this year. It would be nice to have a pressing reason to catch up on all the stuff I’ve missed: but I’m also stymied by the woeful wireless connection here at home these days. It’s never been great but at the moment it’s next to useless. We’ve upgraded to something which BT tells us is called Home Hub 2.0. The evident advance on the last model is that, with the eyes of its NPD department apparently fixed on the looming Singularity, BT has made its new equipment artificially intelligent. Not really intelligent, you understand, just intelligent enough to react to its domestic data-transferral function with a kind of nihilistic despondency. The wireless signal is strong enough now but the hub really can’t be arsed to actually do anything. It needs to be manually rebooted every few minutes, giving a tiny window of usable time before it once again loses interest and forgets what it was doing. So getting anything done -- including this -- is a bit like trying to train seeing-eye cats for the blind.

Anyway, time will tell (and let’s factor in also my susceptibility to public opinion, on the slender offchance that any actually reaches me) what shows up here in due course and what doesn’t. For now, mindful that yr devoted but seldom gruntled Fat Controller has hardly radiated Olafur Eliasson levels of sweetness and light here -- or, in fact, anywhere -- in recent weeks, here’s a post full of things that I think are worth mentioning because they are, or might be, good, and deserve your attention over the next couple of weeks while I’m busy making my last (and smallest -- and that’s saying something...) show of the year.

Opinions may divide -- even within individuals -- on its subject, but Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms seems to me to be the best curated, best designed single-artist show at the Hayward since their brilliant Bruce Nauman retrospective several years ago. The rooms of the downstairs gallery (the upstairs is given over to the South African artist Robin Rhode) become quite distinctly organised zones, given queasy but hardly inapposite names such as ‘Cosmos’ and ‘Filmscape’: all of these regions are designed to induce in the visitor a strong feeling of immersion which is brightly suggestive of one of the exhibition’s apparent arguments. We tend to associate with Warhol a kind of disinterested flatness or remoteness, evidence for which is constantly presented throughout the show’s trajectory (which is not chronological but rather implies a sequence of unfolding ideas about the perception of depth and relational indices in different media). But even as we are asked to consider the nature of that distance and superficiality, we are experiencing a quite contrary sensation, of walking inside a much more dimensionalised portrait not of Warhol himself but of a whole milieu that we’re essentially being asked to think of as itself possibly his most significant work.

For example, the first room, ‘Cosmos’, presents, side-by-side, prints and works on paper, but also merchandise (we encounter the famous soup cans first as paintings and then reproduced in t-shirt form), documentation, press cuttings and other achival materials, books... -- in fact a whole yard sale of Warhol bric-a-brac, including the entire contents of one of his time capsules, full of publicity photos of the Beatles and correspondence from ingenuous young men asking to be cast in his movies. Whole arrays of Polaroids and contact sheets, showing stills from endless celebrity performances (not least Warhol’s own) which seem both staged and ad hoc, are viewed and re-viewed as participants in a kind of parallax play: when are they art, when are they not? Do we have a name for the middle ground? Is it something to do with culture, perhaps? (See, by the way, Alison Croggon’s quite brilliant recent post on the operations of culture -- amongst other things -- which was a really useful portable frame through which to trace the slippages and eddies in which this profoundly mischievous show narrates itself.) Perhaps it’s something to do with the way the marketplace barely sustains, or is interested in, a distinction between art and corollary artefact. Interestingly, those items which seem most incontrovertibly to be artworks rather than documentary effects, such as the Marilyns and the soup cans, are mostly placed highest in the room, way way up towards the ceiling, so that they can barely be seen and certainly not scrutinised. (The exceptions are the less iconic gold-leafed drawings, which would disappear at that distance.) It seems an almost preposterously literal response to Factory associate Rene Ricard’s injunction, in his brilliant and seminal essay ‘The Radiant Child’, that artists have a responsibility to “raise” their work “above the vernacular.” Perhaps there’s some truth in it -- though one would probably want to quibble with ‘responsibility’ -- but the feeling is that the mise en chambre of ‘Cosmos’ almost pokes fun at this attitude. The art that rises (like hot air, perhaps) out of the demotic hubbub starts to feel like a barely relevant by-product in a complex process of fractional distillation where the real action, the real information, is on the floor, at eye- (and ear- and mouth-) level. (Ricard ultimately knew this better than anyone, carefully positing a crucial distinction between “work that is information [and] work that is about information”; on these terms, Warhol’s signed, sealed, delivered art products are merely about the information that circulated so cogently within the cultural milieu of Warhol’s Factory.)

Other zones bring together Warhol’s films -- nineteen of them, all playing in loop on large-ish screens -- and, fascinatingly, videotapes of the cable TV shows he helmed in the early 80s for various channels including the nascent MTV. This array of suspended television screens rather beautifully spatializes a grammar of spectation that MTV is more or less credited with inventing or ushering in – a much more disjunctive, fast-cutting, alogical, multilayered style than heretofore, which anticipates and mimics the way in which having a short attention span would become a sort of prestige value in that decade: the viewer is both less and more engaged -- less prepared to sit passively in front of whatever she’s given, readier to flip channels or (all together now) go out and do something less boring instead; but inclined also perhaps to premature judgement, seeking immediate gratification or easy stimulation. In this so-called “TV-scape” (yuck, but yeah, OK), you hop from seat to seat, finding what somebody else is watching at the edge of your field of vision suddenly more intriguing than the programme you’ve just plugged into. There are odd glimpses of, say, pre-stardom Pee Wee Herman, or Nick Kamen months before the stopwatch starts on his own fifteen -- OK, eleven -- minutes of fame, or Rockets Redglare on the door at the Red Bar, or the debut of Ben Volpeliere-Pierrot (the ludicrously skinny and limber lead singer with Warhol proteges Curiosity Killed the Cat), or (most bizarrely) a young Kevin Spacey in weird stand-up/performance art mode; and of course there’s Philip Glass, there’s Debbie Harry, there’s Divine... And then there’s countless more-or-less interchangeable male models and female dancers, and lots of weird segments of Warhol himself being made to do aerobic exercise by some fearsome trainer. It’s enthralling: but what does it all add up to? Well, it adds up to itself, I guess, and the movements that it implies. Its unspoken slogan is perhaps that peerless, quintessential 80s couplet: “Keep feeling fascination / Looking, learning, moving on.” In other words, it wraps what seems like a nearly devotional concern for haecceity -- and, indeed, for beauty, whatever that may mean at any moment -- with a powerful, self-defeating restlessness that sits acutely and not unintelligently in a hard-to-discern interzone between inquisition on the one hand and acquisition on the other. What intrigues particularly is how this trigger-happy, gregarious, nearly (though seldom quite) dilettante aesthetic sits alongside the films: their slowness, their staticness, their restraint -- not least the early apogee of the eight-and-a-half hour Empire. In a way the TV shows simply make pornographically explicit what the early films erotically implied: never really expecting the spectator to slow down their perceptual relations with the work to match the velocity of their self-divulgence, those movies seem to me simply to present sites for an order of speculative proliferation that is deeply subjective. What changes in the ensuing twenty years is the reproductive technologies that will exteriorise and limitlessly broadcast that same quasi-frictionless traversal of a self-assembly conceptual field, powered and reframed by the emphases of privatisation and deregulation that the dispassionate self-regard of the earlier work is already incubating.

There is absolutely nothing to be gained by noting here, as everybody presumably does for themselves anyway, that despite the hundreds of representations of Warhol in this show, not only in publicity shots and portraits and press cuttings but also in seemingly endless reels of self-archiving documentary video, we never get closer to him, blah; maybe there’s no “there” there, blah encore. It’s kind of true: but additionally and contrarily an implied portrait emerges of an extremely smart, switched-on artist and thinker, and a generous and engaged man for whom -- as is the case for present-day luminaries such as Dennis Cooper and John Waters -- kindness, graciousness, and a sincere interest in what others have to say are fundamental operating principles which by informing the moment-to-moment interaction with others necessarily inform by consequence the emergent work, even that part of the work that rises most airily (and, in Warhol’s case, lucratively) above the melee of the vernacular. Warhol has always, more or less inevitably, come to mind whenever I recall Iain Sinclair’s brilliant encapsulation of celebrity (in Suicide Bridge): “The act of stardom is to ... spray anonymity in gold light.” The pleasure in Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms is in how obvious it becomes that Warhol was quite actively seeking that light, in order to use it to illuminate others. In a way, he is a perfect theatre director, a brilliant maker of performance spaces and of opportunities for human encounter; only his attachment to the archive rules him out. (Even so, without Warhol, there is probably no his horses on my own CV, and no Hey Mathew -- though he wasn’t at all a conscious influence on either.)

In that respect it’s particularly interesting to consider what feels to me like the most successful of the films: his portrait of the great curator Henry Geldzahler. I hadn’t seen this one before, and was gripped by it, moved finally and unexpectedly to tears. It immediately (like, the next day) follows Empire in the oeuvre, but its unblinkingness is quite different, both scarier and more tender. Geldzahler is no conventional beauty (though he has a sweet, flustered voluptuousness), and as his experience of having the camera trained on him seems to turn from game to ordeal, his squirming becomes at first amusing and then deeply affecting. Perhaps we read in that discomfort what later is made clear from the accompanying text: unlike most of Warhol’s films, the artist wasn’t present during the filming of Henry Geldzahler: its subject was left alone with the camera. This loss to the exchange of the presence of Warhol as witness seems to me to deprive it of the kind of benign equity that is so important (often infuriatingly so) in coming to the artist’s other work. It’s odd, because the absence merely acts out what one takes to be Warhol’s disinterest (not un-interest); but that witnessing presence is, I’d suggest, across so much of Warhol’s work, something else before it cancels itself. It signals a desire to be present rather than not: which is either the minimum commitment required in the making of an artwork, or the whole of it, or its almost unimaginable horizon, but is anyway fundamental, and too frequently omitted in so much that is superfluously made.

This sits tellingly alongside another notable feature of the work presented in the show: how remarkably unerotic it is. I’ve always assumed that erotic attentiveness was more or less part of the architecture of the Factory, and indeed it may have been: Warhol’s own self-isolating voyeurism, which anyway is far from the whole story about his sex life, may have partly set the tone but there was clearly a hotter permissiveness at work too. (And after all there’s only a little breathing space between this work and Paul Morrissey’s Flesh, an unimpechably erotic piece of cinema – though admittedly this work is post-Warholian in more than one important sense; nor is Lonesome Cowboys in this show, which is unfortunate.) Wherever there is some sense of the erotic here it is either stifled by restraint – I’m afraid I don’t buy the received view that Blow Job is made sexier by the fixed focus on the facial expression of its blown subject – or disabled by a self-conscious silliness which barely even achieves the shagpile depth of camp. (Vide, or don’t, The Nude Restaurant; or, for that matter, the video in which Warhol, in typically benign and sanguine earnest, regards an artist drawing a portrait of him using a pencil stuck up his ass.) What we see, again and again, is a dismantling of the apparatus of eroticism in the service of the free exchange of surface and imitation. The geuinely erotic seems to incite a depth of sensation that presents a clear and present danger to the economy of the Factory and the wider circulation of Warhol as tender. As I’ve suggested, this may be a misperception brought about by the content of this show, which may in turn have been limited by Warhol’s estate, say; e.g. if I remember correctly, John Waters not so long ago curated a show of Warhol’s porn – not only that which he owned, but that which he made. So that material, were it here, might put a different complexion on things. But what we see here – and I’m inclined to trust this to a certain extent because it seems to explain so much else – is a modus operandi predicated substantially on the defusing of sexuality as a way of being able to acknowledge it without, as it were, yielding to it, and to its most radical implications in terms of its plausible threat to the series of complicities and acquiescences that Warhol himself would have to enact in order to become available (and by extension acceptable) to the widest possible audience. (I mean this not only in relation to public discomfort or disapproval of homoeroticism, but more fully with regard to the sense on which Warhol is dependent, both in his work and at the centre of his circle, that the interchangeability of elements, the tradeability of artefacts and ideas, is essentially free, and/or structured by market forces rather than specific instances of ethical or civic or historic consideration). The attachment to surface, to repetition, to the flip-flip-flip of the remote, and perhaps above all to scopophilia, is manifestly protective: but it’s incapable of closing down its own political ramifications, and can only hope therefore to be prettier than they are. (Which it mostly is.) If Warhol as theatre director – as witness and as author of spaces for encounter and contemplation – is a deeper and more provoking presence than Warhol as painter (or simply as signature), this seems to resonate with Zizek’s suggestion that, quite contrary to the widely credited assumption that we find ourselves now in an age where irony and critical distance have supplanted old narratives of value and in which “nobody believes anything any more”, in fact the strenuous contortions of our self-distancing language and our ironic remoteness only signal our terrible fear of those narratives, in which, at heart, we believe now more strongly than ever. Warhol, like Wilde, is, both aesthetically and personally, viable only if sex is reduced to decor, if death is a kind of wallpaper: otherwise, the fear of haecceity -- not its face but its fathomlessness -- rushes in as surely and as claustrophobically as it did for Hopkins, say.

I’ve now been back to this exhibition four times, and I suspect I may catch it again before it closes on January 18th. Before it is everything else that it is, it is exciting, stimulating, wildly productive, and -- as my repeat visits perhaps suggest -- ultimately profoundly unsatisfying. But I choose that ‘profoundly’ with care.

Nothing else will detain us quite so long: no reflection on it, only on my own stamina.

A quick round-up of other worthwhile art stuff should begin with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s delightful and unsettling Frequency and Volume, at the Barbican Curve also till January 18th. The concept is high, not complex but effective: walking into the gallery, your shadow is cast large on the white wall; your shape, your outline in silhouette, is analysed by computer and translated into a particular radio frequency; that frequency is then played back into the room, meaning that, as you walk through the gallery, your movement becomes the action of tuning and retuning (and volume-controlling) a radio.

The pleasures of this are initially simple: it’s fun to throw shapes (and to watch others doing so too) and interesting to move through the different stations that are activated as a result. I quite quickly found myself adopting a compositional relationship with the room, trying to locate the most satisfactory sound layers to add to whatever was already being produced. (Which is how I came to find myself protractedly tuned in to a harp recital on Classic FM, a station I normally can’t abide.) The idea of the body as tuner is also nicely suggestive on a not-too-precise metaphorical level: we all seem to have this vague sense of receiving signals, of being constantly bombarded with voices which we pick up or tune out (I’ve always loved the typo on the original sleeve of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon which inadvertently retitles the song ‘Road’ as ‘Radio’); and in fact I was reminded of the suggestive thesis that Nigel Kerner airs in his hysterical Song of the Greys, a book about alien visitation with which I was much taken at the time that we were making The Consolations several years ago, that the human skeleton, ‘designed’ as it is partly for the efficient conduction of sound in utero, is a perfectly shaped aerial “for transmitting and receiving the radio wavelength equivalent of the pre-electromagnetic spectrum i.e. Thought”: which is one of those varieties of bullshit that nonetheless seem to tell us something quite usable about what we want to do with ourselves.

After a while, darker resonances start to emerge. For a start, certain of the identified transmissions cannot, after all, be heard: we can tune ourselves in to the sound of satellites (gorgeous!) or radio astronomy but – “owing to UK legislation” (presumably the purview of Ofcom?) – no sources that aren’t intended for public use: so, no air traffic control, no navigation channels, no emergency services: these are censored. Furthermore, one’s sense of the whole experience shifts, for example, on seeing (as I did) somebody walk straight through the gallery completely unaware that she was being tracked by motion sensors and surveillance technologies. Suddenly, the space that Lozano-Hemmer has created feels much more complicatedly wrought, much more hemmed in by the kind of authoritarian encroachment on our private movements and communications to which we have now become accustomed and more or less resigned, if we are aware of it at all: and, to that degree, it’s kind of a trivial playground response to that invasive pressure. But the artist is at least consciously folding these questions into the mix, and in terms of the kinds of gallery behaviours that it encourages, Frequency and Volume is probably my favourite interactive artwork since I first encountered Jeppe Hein’s still-matchless Disappearing Rooms.

If you didn’t catch it then you’ve missed Roberto Cuoghi’s sound installation Šuillakku at the ICA. Well, no matter. This was an impressive but unproductive piece, a quarter-hour audio loop of arguably overemphatic and at times drearily figurative exotica, attempting a sort of imaginative reconstruction of ancient Assyrian ritual. My students were blown away by it but I found it pretty unengaging, except at a technical level (a really sharp eight-channel mix full of clever spatial ideas): but then I have no imagination. They closed their eyes and imagined themselves in dark and spooky spaces surrounded on all sides by gibbering glossolaliac bogeypersons. I sat on the floor and enjoyed looking at the eight vaguely anthropomorphic speakers on their speaker stands, like bargain bin Giacomettis out of Maplins. Afterwards I recalled a music lesson at infant school: being played (aged seven), by a pretty progressive teacher it now strikes me, the first half of The Rite of Spring, and asked to draw whatever pictures were evoked by the music in my young mind. Completely uncomprehending of the task, and in some desperation, I drew a tree – having some sense that classical music was generally about trees, as was spring – and received a very low mark for it. Well, sorry, but the music didn’t remind me of anything: it was just itself, speaking for itself, arguing with itself. Of course the Rite is programmatic enough that I’m on shaky ground here: so, OK, more fool me. I just don’t get pictures when I listen to music. Cuoghi’s installation interested me mostly because it was only sound and entirely that. In a drab white-walled carpeted room we sat surrounded by speakers whose cables weren’t even primly tidied away. It’s quite rare to visit a gallery-based sound installation that makes no concessions whatever to the usual visual tropes of a gallery: there’s almost always some element of design, even if it’s just about low light or suspending the speakers or something. Here there was nothing but raw materials, and I rather liked that. Whether Cuoghi will turn out to be interesting, I’ve no idea; at a rough guess I’d say probably not, though this sort of overheated pictorialism certainly seems to be staging some sort of comeback.

A quick mention of Conversations at Kettle’s Yard, too (also now closed): there wasn’t much in it to get very excited about but I liked the idea – an assemblage in one space of a series curated over the course of a year by the Ingleby Gallery in Edinburgh, pairing older and younger artists with the broad general expectation that the younger person’s work somehow speaks to the elder’s. In practice this produces its best results when the younger artist is specifically responding to the earlier work shown: Cerith Wyn Evans makes a beautiful, and highly informed, response to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Star/Steer’; Callum Innes sensitively encounters Hiroshi Sugimoto – it’s hardly thrilling but it feels right; I don’t think Ceal Floyer’s ‘Door’ is made specifically in response to Dan Flavin but it’s a cute, funny, gently deflating comment anyway. By comparison, those pairings that are very obviously not bespoke or even authorised by the younger artist tend to misfire: most conspicuously the baffling pairing of an early Richard Serra film piece with a few of Francesca Woodman’s photographs, onto which conjunction not even the accompanying critical flatus can confer even the mildest coherence — in fact, both artists suffer from the match. Bolder inclusions are hit-and-miss in practice: it’s great to see a Howard Skempton score exhibited as a visual artwork, though the paired-up James Hugonin, attractive though his work is, has nothing to add; Robert Burns’s breakfast table, on the other hand, turns out to be, uh, pretty boring: which at least makes it consonant with the Rachel Whiteread piece alongside it. Mostly, though, I am bugged by the rubric. How are any of these pairings truly Conversations? We may be able to produce conversational readings, sure, but we’ll do this with any two items placed next to each other. The pack of tissues and box of paperclips sitting together next to my computer will produce reams of practical criticism (or sub-Hollyoaks dialogue for that matter) if I sit with them long enough. The curators behind Conversations presumably intend something more than this, something further. Well, fair enough, but what they can’t mean, surely, is ‘conversations’. There was similar nonsense around the word ‘translation’ a few years back. It’s useful to be able to use these terms to refer to quite particular kinds of transaction. For the most part, the activity that’s taking place in the Kettle’s Yard exhibition seems to me to have more to do with a kind of curatorial game of Alzheimer’s Pelmanism that’s ended too soon: which is, after all, more or less indistinguishable at a conceptual level from a game of musical chairs where there are always enough chairs. And there’s no music.

I mentioned in these pages a few weeks ago the death of the exceptionally gifted, and in a dozen other ways exceptional too, American writer David Foster Wallace: but didn’t dwell on it at the time. Probably enough has been said elsewhere now in estimation of Wallace’s work and talents to obviate my less-informed participation in that exercise. But I do want to draw to the attention of Wallace’s fans hereabout the tribute edition of KCRW’s Bookworm that’s just been released. For those who don’t know the programme -- I’ve referred to it here before, but not for a while -- Bookworm is a longrunning series (now available as a free podcast from iTunes and the KCRW web site) of extended interviews with writers (most often novelists), conducted by an amiably purring fellow called Michael Silverblatt who just happens to be an astoundingly smart and perceptive and ingenious reader of books. (Those of us Brits who live with Radio 4 may be forgiven for wondering what such a person can possibly be doing hosting a book programme...)

Anyhoo. Bookworm has marked Wallace’s passing with a re-run of an interview he did with Silverblatt shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest in 1996. The conversation is of a quite astonishing calibre and in a way the most moving thing about it is not hearing Wallace talk about his ideas and working process but hearing how surprised and delighted he is by the attentiveness of Silverblatt’s reading of his work, by how tuned-in Silverblatt is. (I quite agree, it’s incredible; I don’t subscribe to Bookworm but I’ve heard probably twenty of these interviews and I’ve literally never heard Silverblatt make a remark or observation or ask a question that seems on the wrong track.) It’s poignant in this context because we tend to think of someone like Wallace as an intellectual, game-playing writer, and perhaps underestimate his emotional and physical investment in his work: so when he actually recognizes his novel in Silverblatt’s discussion of it, he’s audibly touched. “I feel like asking you to adopt me,” he says at one point. It’s quite beautiful, oddly intimate, like overhearing two people realizing that they’ve fallen in love.

My own reading fancies have been most tickled of late by a small but hugely resonant book just out from Reality Street, Paul Griffiths’s let me tell you. I almost feel reluctant to appear to be plugging another Reality Street book after my keen endorsement of the Reality Street Book of Sonnets a few months ago: not least because I got my ear quite roundly cuffed by Geraldine Monk on one of the poetry listservs for giving what she felt was a partial and distorting account of that anthology’s contents. This is one of the problems with writing appreciations on a blog like this of stuff one feels enthusiastic about: one doesn’t write with the care or the calm formal attitude with which one might compose a review for print publication, say. I imagine that I’m talking to friends here, and though I’m always happy to be quoted if anything I say can be useful in putting more readers in touch with a book or whatever, it’s oddly jarring, like a category error, to then be taken to task for what I’ve said as a consequence, or at least to be so vehemently disagreed with outside of these pages. One feels a bit like an actor in a soap opera being duffed up in Sainsbury’s because of something his character did in the previous night’s episode.

Fortunately, Let Me Tell You doesn’t produce (in this reader, at least) quite such a whoosh of adrenalin, so let’s hope I can express my approval of this work in soberer and less contentious terms. Again, there’s a high concept to this book that can be simply explained: the narrative voice is Opehlia, and the author allows himself to use only those words actually spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet. So on one level this is a rare British contribution to the corpus of Oulipian literature: and worth celebrating as such. However, like all the best Oulipian or constraint-based works, it wonderfully exceeds its exact perimeter. Which is not to say that it transcends the pressures exerted by its formative constraints: that would be silly, really. The prose has just a shade of strangeness, of stiltedness about it, even at its most fluent:

Mine is a memory made, as all memory is made, of what was and what should have
been. Wish is close to memory, and will find a way in. Wish will not be denied.
We all know that. Your memory is not one but many – a long music you have made
and will make again, over and over, with some things you know and some you do
not, some that are true and some you have made up, some that have stayed from
long before and some that have come this morning, some that will go tomorrow and
some that have long been there but you will never find them, not if you look
from now to your last day, for there is no end to memory.

And of course the lexis is sufficiently small that over the course of this 130-page book, the patterns of repetition and cross-beating slowly become hypnotic, sometimes befuddling. So it is a vital part of the success of the work that it is not quite able to, presumably not seeking to, rise above its limits; it doesn’t want you to forget what shapes it. But it does exceed, lyrically, hauntingly, its limited life as a game or exercise. The breakages and small bathetic failures of its textures and materials, the gaps and fissures within which the language reverberates, start to speak for themselves, about the homelessness, the terrible wandering madness, of the disembodied voice within such an insistent text. We start to hear something almost like a computer voice -- like HAL, say, in 2001: A Space Odyssey: this artificial Ophelia likewise has just enough intelligence to be paranoid; so much of her expressivity rests on polysemy, and yet if these few words are all she has, how is she to trust them when they’re so unstable? It is a sad, beautiful, limpid book. Were he living, Edward Lear would read it and weep; Veronica Forrest-Thompson, likewise, might bat an eyelid, were she.

As ever, the greater proportion of my day-to-day reading at the moment is online. The blog I’d most like to recommend, or rather the one I’m most enjoying, is Whateverall, my friend Jonny Liron’s space. Occasionally a two- or three-paragraph post will emerge, usually teasing out some question about theatre and its audiences, or language and its users: but mostly, at least for now, the blog advances itself through single lines and phrases. This extreme fragmentation is not a model I’ve seen used before in a blog and it can be devastatingly effective, particularly given the tension between Jonny’s emotional candour and his seductive performative esprit, and also the open and apparent influence of alcohol on some of the late-night posts. It’s as if he’s fed a ripped-up assortment of journal entries, love letters and suicide notes into a shredder, and is compelled every so often to grab a fistful of the output and try to turn it back into shards of convulsive prose. Certainly it’s as close as I, or presumably anyone, will ever come to receiving nocturnal text messages from Rudolf Schwarzkogler. It ain’t always pretty but it’s always, one way or another, true, and you can’t say that about many blog writings. Unfortunately I can’t point you in the direction of Whateverall just now, as a perceived incompatibility between the content of the blog and Jonny’s current acting day-job means he’s had to move the whole thing underground for the time being. When it reemerges into the public domain I’ll be sure to let you know: though I may at that point have cause to regret one or two of my own late-night worse-for-wear comments there...

In the meantime, a couple of relatively new blogs on the block are worth making a passing fuss of. Longtime compadre Tassos Stevens, one of the undersung geniuses of British theatre and presiding godfather of the emergent performance territory of alternate reality gaming (not a satisfactory phrase but he, and you likewise, will forgive the unnicety), now has a play space where he can frequently be spotted thinking through stuff he’s seen and heard and been pondering in the rainforest depths of his winterval beard. Tassos looks more like Slavoj Zizek than anyone else I know, including Zizek himself. But that’s beside the point. (Which means it must be a rubbish point.) Well, heigh ho, what am I trying to say. Simply expressed in terms of, say, ideas per cubic minute, Tassos, and by extension Tassos’s blog, are about as good as it gets if you’re interested in where we’re going and what the top speed is of the handcart in which we’re going there. I hope he isn’t lost altogether to Theatre As She Is Spoke: we can use his brain here too. But in the meantime, you’ll want to keep one eye on what he’s up to, even – no, especially – when you’re asleep.

Another hugely welcome recent addition to the blogroll is Performance Monkey, home to a brilliantly smart and engaging critic called David Jays, to whom I have no connexion to disclose save that (I think) I did We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg! in his flat one time. The scope and the confidence of Performance Monkey is really thrilling and encouraging, particularly with Postcards... so quiet and folks like Dan B and Alex F apparently missing in action. I only discovered it a few weeks ago but it’s already established itself as a must-read.

I’ve also added to the list a couple of blogs that I’d simply foolishly overlooked till now: the performance makers Third Angel (whose lovely Presumption seems to have gone down well at Southwark Playhouse – it’s there till the end of the coming week if you haven’t seen it yet); and the poet Jeff Hilson, my boggling admiration for whom has already been spelt out in these pages to infinity and beyond.

Finally, for those who get through this post in time, an interesting sounding event at the Royal Court tomorrow, trailed here by the excellent Dan Rebellato. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it, sadly, but I’m sure there’ll be reports.

And that’s about it, I think. I mean, obviously, get the new BBC Radiophonic Workshop anniversary CD before they absent-mindedly delete it and it starts changing hands for seventy quid on eBay. And, if you haven’t already (and of course you have) you’ll want to admire the spectacle of Stephen Fry channelling Jay-Z.

Nothing, though, I have to say, has pleased me more in the past few days than discovering that this easy-on-the-eye young fellow...

-- an actor by the name of Cole Williams who plays one of the eponymous brothers in an absolutely barking, wildly incoherent but weirdly likeable American indie film from a couple of years ago called Harry and Max, which describes an incestuous relationship between two sibling popstars presumably modelled on Nick and Aaron Carter, or the screenwriter’s fantasies thereof... -- where was I? Oh yes, so the highly pleasing and estimable Cole Williams turns out to be the son of one of the guys who wrote ‘The Rainbow Connection’. Even in the small world that it undoubtedly is, there’s something so satisfactory about that, I can’t believe it didn’t come giftwrapped.

Keep warm, my dears, and I’ll see you in a while or two.