Monday, September 15, 2008

No more than a postscript to the earlier post. Shocked to see on the Guardian web site this morning the terrible news about the death of David Foster Wallace over the weekend, I jumped over to Dennis's blog, as I so often do when there's big news. On getting there I find what is, to me, an even more upsetting notice: that the poet and critic Reginald Shepherd died last week after a long illness, or series of illnesses, his experience of which will be poignantly familiar to those like me who regularly visited his blog.

Shepherd maintained the best poetry-related blog I know of: his critical voice was one of steady lucidity, checked and balanced by equally attractive traits of passion and reticence. A fine poet himself, his most compelling gift was the generosity of his readings of others, his talent for using his critical rigour as a way of achieving an often tender intimacy with his subjects. The blog is still up this morning (with Shepherd's last entry from August 26th still uppermost) and I hope will stay up for a good while so that we can spend more time in the company of this remarkable man.

Aside from my thoughts being with Shepherd's partner Robert Philen, I feel this morning -- what a weird feature of the blogosphere this is -- that I have lost a friend and colleague, and I'm awfully sad. Coming so soon after the loss of Ken C., and with the heartbreaking unfolding at my dear pal Thomas Moronic's blog of the narrative of his own mother's death last week, things feel pretty gloomy, even in this sunshine. 

The voice at the back of my head right now is Cecil Taylor's, from his vocal introduction to 'Elell' (on Garden) -- "Death comes too soon," he announces, almost comically; in how many ways and for how many people that, right this minute, feels true.

Almost like being in Hove

No, no, really, don't get up, it's only me. Just checking in briefly because from Thursday I'll be on the sliproad to Hey Mathew, work for which starts in earnest next Monday, and from then on I doubt I'll be here much, through to the end of October. Apart from anything else, as I mentioned in my last-but-one post, Hey Mathew has its own little triptych of blogs, which will together constitute one of the collaboratory engines of the process, so if there's any time at all to spend blogging, it's likely to be there, on the whole, rather than here. So, apologies in advance for the tumbleweed.

I hoped to be sitting here this evening with a completed first draft of King Pelican but I am, to say the least, some way off. The last few days have veered unpredictedly off course, hijacked not least by a sudden (and infinitely overdue) urge to springclean this place. I don't mean the blog, I mean the actual room where I actually sit and type this stuff. I was moaning here a few days ago about what a shameful state my living quarters had fallen in to; well, after, literally, years of such dismal and unsanitary existence, out of the deep as it were has arisen the gumption, the intrepidity and the brainless stamina necessary to make a serious dent in the ghastliness. I've never sat through an episode of Time Team (Tony Robinson having peaked, as far as I'm concerned, way back in Fat Tulip's Garden), but I suspect it delivers a broadly similar series of thrills and terrors. Things whose prevalence within these four walls I'd have seriously underestimated until this week's eyepopping excavations: socks; minidiscs; chewing gum; pennies; mugs; phono-to-jack adaptors; fountain pen cartridges; precocious earwigs: "and many, many more", as Kid Jensen used to say. Will this exercise lead to increased clarity of thought? I wonder. For the moment I'm boggling Coleridgianly at the expanse of carpet in here. Who knew?

But wait! Let us spare a thought for those less fortunate than ourselves. Special consolatory brownie-points this week for Andrew Motion, who seems a bit down in the dumps. First he's opening his heart to Hello! -- oh, no, wait, sorry, the haughty denizens of the Ealing Arts Festival -- about how as a consequence of his appointment as Laureate in 1999 he "dried up completely about five years ago". Hm. He never seemed exactly a-gush to me: in fact it's hard to think of a poet more likely to put you in mind of a Jacob's Cream Cracker. But let's not kick the fellow when he's, if not down exactly (after all, doesn't he still receive a stipend of 75 quid and an annual butt of sack or something?), then evidently putting the Andy Motion into "tired and emotional". For one thing, I once pinned a radio mic to him, back in the day when I was Deputy Chief Radio Mic Pinner at St Paul's in Covent Garden: meaning that I know him more intimately than I do, say, Lord St John of Fawsley, or Iggy Pop.

But more importantly, this week -- and perhaps this might be the silver lining to his cloud of despond -- he's dollied up a great teaching aid for me. As one of a number of luminaries (such as Tim Piggott-Smith and Meat Loaf) approached by the Guardian to express fellow-feeling in the matter of comedian Lee Hurst's recent great ecstasy of cellphone-inspired pique, Andrew "Timon" Motion has this to say:

Public readings are floating worlds - there's a strange disparity between what you're saying and how it's understood, because people come with their own preconceptions and prejudices. I've not experienced rage, but have felt puzzlement bordering on dismay and disappointment at discovering that several of the things I have said have been massively misunderstood. You must grow another layer of skin, or become accepting.

This is I think the best explanation I've ever found of the principle on which I founded my company (or label or whatever you want to call it) Signal to Noise. That gap, that "strange disparity", is exactly the zone where an audience and an artist or group of artists together produce the usable substance of a work. Information travels towards the audience; some of that signal breaks up into noise; noise is simply a proliferation of entry- and exit-points for the encounter between the two sets of makers involved in the piece. What's puzzling about Motion's description (though of course he speaks, as do most officially sanctioned artists, out of the norm-hole, so one can hardly berate him in particular for it) is that he's obviously talking regretfully about a predicament that he finds far from congenial -- "you must grow another layer of skin, or become accepting" (in other words, it's a stark choice between ornery ego or addled catamitism -- it's all right, I've tried both so I'm allowed to be facetious about it), which one might conceivably understand if it weren't for the blaringly obvious fact that poetry, more than almost any art form other than theatre, and especially in relation to the milksop's Brigadoon of "public readings", has an incredibly low signal-to-noise ratio. In fact that incredibly low signal-to-noise ratio is basically what poetry is. It's language under a kind of public stress that yields illimitable multiplicity, riddled with entry and exit wounds into which the doubtful reader is invited to poke her finger. For Motion -- at this late and presumably exalted stage of his career -- to bemoan the infidelities with which his chosen practice is seethingly fraught is just plain bewildering. It's like hearing a Premier League footballer contemplating retiring from the game because the other guys on the team keep kicking something at him and it seems a bit dangerous and impolite. I mean why would you choose poetry as your medium and not, like, factsheets? Actually, the best thing I ever read of Motion's was an autobiographical novel, The Pale Companion, which is not at all bad: so maybe that's the ticket. -- But anyway: o! Mr Motion, thanks a million for a paragraph that's going to be on every beginning-of-term handout I ever distribute for the rest of my natural life.

Right, well, while I'm being hoity-toitily baffled by the grown-ups, I'd better just mention Lipsynch, the Robert Lepage epic currently showing at the Barbican. This starts unfairly for Lepage, perhaps, but: When I was asked by an arts magazine last year to name my 'Heroes & Villains' for a regular column, I decided to confine myself to a sole theatrical hero, and settled, without too much brooding, on Lepage: his has been the body of work that's most inspired my own practice over the past fifteen years, since I saw the early underdeveloped (but still, in several passages, numinously beautiful) Seven Streams of the River Ota in Edinburgh in 1994 -- and, in fact, even before then, having read about The Dragon's Trilogy in The Drama Review and seen odd BBC Late Show clips of Tectonic Plates and Needles and Opium. I've never seen a Lepage show that I thought was perfect in the way that The Street of Crocodiles (or, for that matter, The Sea and Poison) was perfect, though The Far Side of the Moon came pretty close in many ways. But in everything he did, even ill-received pieces like the muddled Geometry of Miracles or the hubristic Elsinore, was something ineffable, in which the adventurous and border-crossing exertions of his intellectual curiosity repeatedly found rapturous, and often giddyingly simple, emotional expression, through the basic tenets of theatre -- through the body, through light, through signals that delight in their own susceptibility to noise. His love of language -- above and beyond any one language or any single encounter between languages -- and his deep understanding of the technologies of metaphor that particularly distinguish theatre and poetry have made him important to me like almost no other artist.

So, yes, perhaps that's an impossible estimation for him and his work. Even so, and with nothing but the best will, I think Lipsynch is terrible. It's as if it's made not by Lepage himself but by some K-Tel cover artist who's read a bullet-point list of Lepage's signature stylings and utterly misunderstood them all. It's banal, clunky, cheap, tired and quite often boring: and I've never thought any of those things about any of his work before. Even among the least approving notices elsewhere you will see references to wonderful scenes or moments, and I suppose there are, in the first and eighth of the nine sections especially. (After the first hour I was still pretty hopeful; by the time section eight came around, I was at least glad I hadn't left during one of the earlier intervals, though it was touch-and-go a couple of times.) But, honestly, almost everything about it feels ersatz, from the jarring use of documentary recordings -- about which Mark Fisher quite rightly raises a concern -- to the trademark use of incidental circularities, none of which, on this occasion, deepen or broaden our experience of the narrative, the characters or the aesthetic.

I'm not going to say any more, it's depressing to write about and will only elicit equally depressing responses (on both sides). But the best summary I can find for what's happened here is this: that Lepage's talent has always been to make the stage world open out so that it feels as if it has no boundaries, that it can contain multitudes; here, he takes a multitudinous real world and shrinks it to a sequence of inert precis. The energy of the work, for the first time (that I've seen), is not expansive but reductive -- which, across nine hours, is clearly trouble. Perhaps the most obvious indication is his characteristic use of coincidences to make connections between disparate characters or storylines. Here, we don't care enough about the characters or their journeys, and the coincidences are not in themselves resonant (because the symbology is so underdeveloped), nor are they 'magical' -- I'm not going to try and unpack that in this post, that needs a post of its own -- because, actually, what else could happen? What else would you expect, but that the right character gets on the right tube train at the right moment, or that another is told that he resembles the father he's never traced by someone who just happens to have worked with both of them? Everything about this piece, from its dependence on the already second-hand emotional weight of Gorecki to its hijacking of documentary recordings to the excruciating low farce of its antepenultimate section (I literally had my head in my hands by the end of it) to its running time to its glut of thunking coincidence points, is unearned. That's lethal. You just haven't earned it yet, baby.

What I did feel, in waves, all day -- at first quite pleasantly, and by the end sort of desperately and quite sadly -- was that my generation of devisor/makers must now start working on a more ambitious scale. It's difficult to know what comes first, the lack of resourcing and support or a deficit of aspiration; and anyway of course Shunt and Punchdrunk have made confident work on a large scale. But even they, I think, on the whole (with the exception perhaps of Dance Bear Dance) have not quite been able to clinch -- pardon my Billing-tone -- the necessary, truly impactful consonance of form, aesthetic, content and scale -- have perhaps not sought it -- and for whatever (infinitely legitimate and devilishly complicated and inwoven) reasons, company-devised British work post-Complicite has continued to feel marginal in the culture even at its most ambitious and out-turned. I'm not sure I can think of anything that's got closer than Filter's Water, which was still a smallish show in a biggish space. (I'm the wrong person to ask, I don't see enough -- can anyone tell me what I'm omitting from this account?) I suppose Black Watch has pushed some of the pertinent buttons, or perhaps some people thought Dissocia did. I dunno. I do want to be clear that this is not a downcast grumpy-old-men chunter going on here, but kind of a gee'd-up yawp of excitement that something here or hereabouts is precisely ready to come of age, coupled with a pissed-off yelp at what feels, more often than not, like a practically inescapable glass ceiling. I don't know if I'm the right person to do this work anyhow -- I mean, I thought Speed Death of the Radiant Child was a good stab, but the people that that piece spoke to most powerfully were, on the whole, yknow, students and other theatre-makers and basically a load of people who don't have any more money or power than I do to make things happen with. So, what do I know, etc.

It would be better, probably, if I didn't continually, day after day, shoot myself in the foot. And then in the face. And then in the foot again, twice.

Which reminds me, I woke up pretty late this morning and deeply disturbed (and exhausted) by a dream in which I kicked Nicholas Lyndhurst to death. This sounds made-up or like the preamble to a joke, but it's not. I kicked Nicholas Lyndhurst to death, and it took ages. Unfortunately, not being a joke, there's no punchline to that. I think I'm still angry because I ordered a bookcase from Argos last week and they delivered a duvet. Er... This isn't a very good note on which to leave the premises for a little while, is it.

Well, so. Let's see. Some things you should do while I'm gone. Go see Helium. Listen to Chad VanGaalen. Go to the Bob Cobbing tribute night at the Klinker -- the October listings aren't up at the web site yet so I can't remember exactly when, though it's at the Kings Cross branch so it'll be the first or third Monday of the month. Pre-order the Bruce Weber DVD box set. Learn to speak Vout. Skip the Rothko, you have my permission, life's too interesting. Sit in a lighthouse and wait till autumn. Get the new Artforum, there are some great pieces on Michael Clark and a fantastic cover shot. Oh and can somebody go and see Pineapple Express and tell me whether it's worth my time? I'm quite tempted, though stoner comedy is not exactly my home-from-home -- mostly I just can't quite believe that David Gordon Green would direct anything not worth seeing.

Actually I'm re-reading Peter Hall's Diaries which is perhaps whence the grandiose emesis above arises. I picked it up to see what he had to say about Ken Campbell's Illuminatus opening the Cottesloe, and I'm still thumbing through it two days later. Incidentally, somebody's linked to my Thompson's piece on Ken C. from bloody Wikipedia. Astounding. I liked this blog better when nobody knew it was there, like the still-undiscovered fourth bog-bound biddy that it in so many other ways also resembles.

Anyway. Gosh. Past my bedtime again. How does this happen? I'm blaming you. You just don't know when to stop. ...But I like you, all the same. You're nice.

*bites lower lip and wrinkles nose like Emile Charles in The Fruit Machine*

'Night, then.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

President Lincoln's address to the waiting room

I was trying to find something among my boxes and boxes of papers this weekend, and didn't: but found a bunch of other things instead: one of which, pleasingly, since the documents in question long since vanished from my hard drive, was a cache of texts and other bits and pieces relating to my 2004 show Escapology.

For those who didn't see it -- which is, after all, on balance, probably a majority of people in the world -- Escapology trapped together, for no clear reason, in a waiting room, six more-or-less iconic figures from history: Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier (Tom Lyall and Jamie Wood), Harry Houdini (Vanessa-Faye Stanley), Abraham Lincoln (Selina Papoutseli), Marie Curie (Davina Silver) and Helen Keller (Sebastien Lawson).

A pivotal moment two thirds of the way through the piece had Lincoln (portrayed as an imperious dwarf) responding to the burgeoning scenes of civil unrest and calamity unfolding outside the room, narrated by -- who else? -- Helen Keller, peeping nervously out of the window and surveying the chaos. Speaking in Greek, with simultaneous translation by Marie Curie and, eventually, accompaniment on massed ukuleles (this was 2004, just months before the uke jumped the physical theatre shark, mmkay?), musicial saw and, discreetly offstage, yrs truly extemporising upon the System 2 Omnichord, the President had this to say...

(I don't know why the repost seems timely, but it does. I find myself recalling Theron's remark after he saw the show at CPT. "Oh boy," he said, "you've really done it now.")

My fallow Americans:

It is surely a measure of the esteem in which I was held as your sixteenth President that during my term of office I was only shot twice.

The first time, the bullet merely penetrated my hat.

The second time, I was at Ford's theatre -- a theatre very like this one, with fine rococo features and magnificent plunging architraves -- to see a play called "Our American Cousin". In truth it wasn't a very good play and I had spent much of the first act contemplating the number of Maltesers I could insert beneath my foreskin. When my interest in these speculations passed, it occurred to me that I would find the evening tremendously enlightened if a gunman were to burst in to the State Box.

In actual fact I could not have been more wrong. For when, rather ironically, a gunman did burst in to the State Box and twat me in the back of the noggin, I found the experience left me not so much enlivened as dead.

As is the case with Presidential assassinations, the Vice President was installed in my stead, and indeed he did tolerably well in the post until he too was assassinated while on a lamping trip with friends who mistook him for a moose. In a top hat.

His successor, the erstwhile Speaker of the House, also acquitted himself decently for slightly less than a week before being shot during a hysterical fracas at a national spelling bee. He was replaced by the President pro tempore of the Senate, who lasted just thirty-six hours before ending his own life in what appeared to be an autoerotic assassination error.

The Secretary of State was installed and assassinated.

The Secretary of the Treasury was installed and assassinated.

The Secretary of Defense was installed and assassinated.

The Attorney General was installed and assassinated by six separate assassins, who, to their great credit, had formed an orderly queue.

The Secretary of the Interior was shot up the anus by a dinner lady.

The Secretary of Agriculture was pitchforked to death, and then his dead body was assassinated.

The Secretary of Commerce had his throat slit and gold-tipped bullets inserted into the wound.

The Secretary of Labor was assassinated before his installation as President was complete. The Secretary of Health and Human Services was assassinated as he stepped out of his limousine on the way to his own inauguration. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development was assassinated while he read the telegram which confirmed his appointment.

The Secretaries of Transportation, Energy and Education were all assinated while they argued heatedly about the line of presidential succession. The corpse of the Secretary of Education was then used to beat to death the Secretary of Veterans' Affairs.

The Secretary of Homeland Security arrived for his Presidential inauguration to resounding cries of "Dead man walking." However, against all odds, he survived in the post for the remainder of that term, and for a full second term, and became one of the most popular and revered political figures of his generation. ...I'm kidding, of course. They took that sucker out like the trash.

At this point, the line of succession having been exhausted, a variety of Presidents were tried out, from senior White House staff including the Chief of Staff and the Director of Communications, through to an array of PA's, pen-pushers, perverts and sub-postmasters. All were summarily assassinated.

By this point, with the average term of a newly installed President down to just 19.8 seconds, it was becoming harder to find volunteers to do their patriotic duty. A special act of Congress was therefore passed to allow for Presidents to be drafted. It was at about this time that America had her first black President. And her second. And hundreds more. Proud times indeed for the Civil Rights movement.

The accelerating incidence of Presidential assassination seemed to be unstoppable: until an amendment to the Constitution made it possible for the first time for all age restrictions on the office of the Presidency to be lifted. Then, following a televised pageant watched by millions, little Janet Ben Romsey was elected as America's first schoolgirl President. In her fuchsia-coloured taffeta party dress, Janet captured the nation's hearts during her inauguration as she sang the immortal words of Whitney Houston: "I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside." Finally, it seemed, the country had a President everyone could love. Unfortunately, Janet's disquisition on 'the greatest love of all' came to an abrupt end when she was assassinated simultaneously by over eight hundred masked gunmen, and all the beauty she had previously possessed inside was suddenly visible across a wide area of the back wall.

And so it continued until 2001, in which year nearly four thousand people, many of them children as young as apples, were assassinated for no better reason than they were the President of the United States of America. Something had to be done -- and it was done. A further amendment to the Constitution made provision for other species to assume the mantle of Commander-in-Chief.

Since then, it is estimated that anything up to 35 million chickens have served as President of the United States, at an average rate of one every 2.7 seconds. Almost without exception they have been assassinated. A lucky few have died of natural causes while in office, or fallen downstairs. One was liberated by animal rights activists, and went back to its job as a filing clerk at the U.S. Patent Office. One became a carny. One had a hit single on the urban charts. One was briefly married to Liza Minnelli, but relented, and returned to the White House, where it was fucking assassinated.

In November 2004 the rate of chicken Presidents of the United States is steadily increasing by approximately 1.1 chicken Presidents per second per second. By extrapolation it is likely that in 2005 the rate of chicken President acceleration will itself increase by anything up to 1.85 chicken Presidents per second per second per second.

In 2005 America will have enough chicken Presidents to fill Ford's Theatre two thousand five hundred times.

Two thousand five hundred and fifty, if you rip the beaks off.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

A late-night tribute to Bill Evans

OK, so we're really going to do this? I mean you're really going to post some weird sort of interview with yourself?

Well... Interview is probably too grand a word. I thought we could just have a chat. I've been reading Derek Jarman's book Kicking the Pricks, the one that came out around the time of The Last of England, and he uses this device quite a bit, and it seems kind of effective. And I've seen others do it too. Lawrence Upton, for one. It's funny how it seems slightly pretentious as a format, but I don't know that it's terribly different to writing dialogue between howevermany different 'voices' in a play script --

Which, incidentally, is what you should be doing right now.

-- I know, I know... Anyway, let's see what happens. It already has a nice informality to it, don't you think? Stops all that egregious ornateness. I catch myself sounding like Stephen Fry sometimes. This is actually, weirdly, less performative, don't you think? I'm thinking of that lovely Bill Evans album, Conversations With Myself, the one with the multitracking, so he's improvising along with a couple of other versions of himself. I love the intimacy of it. Just doodling. -- And it's nice to have no idea where this is going. One of the reasons my posts here get so absurdly long sometimes is I have a rough map of where I want to get to...

And then you take the most scenic route possible.

I really didn't think you'd interrupt so much. But, yes, I know. Not that driving around like this (if we're going to extend the metaphor) is going to be any less circuitous. But at least it should be possible to give this a limit of, oh, what, an hour, maybe, and then just stop, wherever we happen to be. Wouldn't it be nice to end up somewhere completely unexpected?

Fair enough -- but first things first, where are we going to start?

Er... dunno. Small talk.

Fat chance. You're like that Ivor Cutler song, aren't you? "Don't give me the small talk, give me the big talk! A million million and six... Oh, I love that big talk, give me some more! Elephants, elephants!"

Try me, wise guy.

OK. Small talk. Wow. So... What did you do today?

Oh, I had a really nice day. Had a hard time waking up, that seems to be par for the course at the moment. But I pulled myself together and went to the post office to send Jonny a book I think he'll like. I got the 76 down to Waterloo and en route I had a nice idea for King Pelican which I'm supposed to be writing (as you well know) and which I've been a bit stuck on. Actually I'm not sure it's the idea I need it to be, but it's always reassuring to know these things can pop up out of nowhere, isn't it? I was listening to some of the music I want to use, too. That always helps. I really can't start work on a piece until I know its soundworld. I haven't really focused that yet for King Pelican but it's getting there. I'm just a bit unsure about one thing, the music for the end sequence, I want to use a piece of classical stuff that's (a) a little bit hackneyed probably, and (b) has been used in loads of films and Inspector Morse I think or something like that, and (c) wasn't written until thirty or forty years after the time in which the play is set. -- Yet as regards (c) I'm contemplating using a certain amount of contemporary stuff like Plone and Opsvik & Jennings and that doesn't seem to bug me at all. There's always this distinction (which is preserved in the forms you have to fill out for the Performing Right Society) between music that the characters on stage can supposedly hear and music that they can't. It always used to strike me as the bizarrest categorical distinction to want to preserve, and rather a profound quasi-theological question somehow in relation to the kind of work I make... Anyway, I'm digressing.

Yup. And you seem to have given up on paragraphs.

Where was I? Oh, yes, on the bus. So. Met Lucy at the BFI for lunch in that nice Benugo bar at the back, where, anomalously, the bar staff were actually quite polite and cheerful for once. Maybe they're all new. Anyway, had a good chat with Lucy. She's been working on Helium with Slung Low and was full of interesting stuff about the way that audiences now front up to what appear to be participatory theatre experiences with a real sense of collaborative ownership that, if anything, exceeds the parameters that the makers might intend.

Oops, don't tell Shutters and Wilko.

No, quite. Hm, I hope it's not indiscreet to be repeating this. I was just fascinated. She was saying about how people arrive kind of wearing this badge of honour of having been to see Masque of the Red Death and sort of ready and up-for-it and presuming free-range roaming rights. Whereas Helium is a rather more authored experience, you're guided through, there's not just this proliferation of options and routes and, you know, Choose Your Own Adventure stuff. But I suppose the genie's out of the bottle now! The thing that bothers me in all this is, as I was saying over at the Guardian blog the other day --


-- it seems to me we now routinely devalue the participatory act of paying attention. The idea that if a piece asks you to sit still and watch and listen (and would prefer you not to play Xenakis on your Quality Street wrappers), that somehow puts you as an audience member in a passive and powerless position. It's that Goodman thing, isn't it, wanting the audience partly to be moved by what it is doing -- watching. I mean I think that can be expanded on in all kinds of ways but as a basic statement I think that's very acute.

Yeah, you see, all this waffle is fine and dandy but we're supposed to be in smalltalk mode. Tell the ladies and gentlemen about the chips you had.

Yes, it's true, Benugo do do inordinately good chips.

What happened after that?

Oh, a little potter around the South Bank, up to the Hayward bookshop, then home. Bought some chocolate.

Chips and chocolate: bravo! I thought you were supposed to not be eating chocolate these days.

Well, you know. There's only so many fronts you can fight a war on at one time, right? ...And then this evening I've been taking care of my other blogs. There are three blogs associated with the Hey Mathew project, which is about a fortnight away from starting in earnest, so I've been trying to collect and post some material for those.

You're going to link to them here, right?

Probably, eventually. Not quite yet. In a few days. And one of them's private, anyway.

I thought the whole point of Hey Mathew was that thing you were saying the other day about Tracey Emin, about the demolition of privacy. Privacy the invention of naughty capitalist pig-dogs etc. etc.

True. But sometimes you need a bit of safe space, don't you? To think about things, talk about things, in a space where you're just sharing those thoughts with a couple of other people maybe, who know you and know the context you're speaking from. I don't think that's a malign use of privacy. I was telling someone the other day about how when I was pretty young, probably about seven or eight, I got caught playing doctors & nurses with a girl I was friends with, her mother walked in on us and I was outraged because I'd thoughtfully stuck a sign on the bedroom door saying PRIVATE - KEEP OUT. It never occurred to me that such a sign would have an effect precisely contrary to what I intended. I think kids do need that kind of space, and I still actually (slightly indignantly!) feel like it ought to be respected; and what's good for kids is normally good for artists, right?

So you wouldn't be up for open rehearsals? I thought that was something you were in favour of.

Well, I really like the idea, and I think it's important, but it's part of a contract, isn't it, it's part of opening out a process to its various potential audiences -- and to other practitioners, too, just as importantly: I was thinking only the other day (during a fascinating conversation with Julia Barclay, who's doing some research work on the conceptual and practical interfaces between theatre and philosophy, and the travel between the conceptual and the practical) about how little I know about how other folks, even some I'm pretty close to, actually make their work, and I do think we should share those things more. I think the blogs we're setting up for Hey Mathew can partly have that function, that people will be able to engage with our process, if they want, and either, as it were, spectate, or, if they prefer, actually involve themselves in the creative conversation. -- But it's still the case that sharing the process includes being honest about times when the doors need to be closed.

OK. Well, thank you for the characteristically full answer. We're nearly at our hour, aren't we?

Really? Already? I feel like I've only just got going. How shall we finish up?

I was thinking... How about a snapshot of right now? 2.11 am on Saturday 6th September? What's happening?

Um... OK. Well, I'm pretty tired, I'm getting that looking-forward-to-being-in-bed feeling. I had a little nap earlier but it didn't do the trick. I don't think I have the capacity for any more reading today but I might just watch -- uh-oh, here comes a guilty pleasure, even though I don't believe in them... -- I might just watch the next bit of Dead Poets Society, which has somehow ended up on my iPod. I love watching movies on my iPod, it's insane and obviously massively disrespectful to the filmmakers concerned, but I really like it. Partly I think I still haven't got over the novelty of it. I wonder what my 11-year-old self would have made of it. I thought Game & Watch Snoopy Tennis was pretty awesome. Actually I was pretty happy with a ten-colour biro.

Oh, but Dead Poets Society? Really? Are you sure?

Maybe not. Actually even just writing it down has made the appetite fade a little bit. In fact it was last night's craving. Tonight I'm not feeling it so much.

What else?

Oh, well, a certain amount of exhausted dismay at how perpetually untidy this room is. Books absolutely everywhere. I need more shelves. Every so often I really damage a book this way, and I hate that. It's like when I used to accidentally tread on the cat's tail. She was a peculiarly underfoot sort of creature, wasn't she? She'd get over it in a heartbeat, of course, being trodden on, but even writing about it now I can feel it, the awful wincing crunching feeling of having done it. And it's just as bad with books. Worse, really. They don't bounce back. Ach, this room is impossible, or I'm impossible, one or the other. Far too much stuff for the space. I was really hoping I'd have time this summer to seriously sort it all out, all the piles of papers everywhere, all this crap: but it hasn't happened yet and I guess it probably won't now. I hate being ashamed of the state of my room, though, the invisible floor. Cramps my style, innit. It's just the immensity of the task is completely overwhelming. The only upside is the peculiar juxtapositions it throws up from time to time. I trod in some wasabi the other day. It was on a plate on the floor. I was oddly proud of that.

What else?

I've got "Pearl's Girl" by Underworld going round my head. I was listening to Second Toughest in the Infants today on the way home. Mark Fisher's Guardian blog post about narrative has been on my mind in the last few days, and it was kind of in relation to that. Mark's a fantastic critic but I slightly disagree with him on the importance of narrative. It's good that he qualifies it so readily -- he's obviously not necessarily talking about linear narrative, for example. But I don't think it's right that story (which anyway isn't quite the same thing as narrative) provides structure. I really think you first have to find the formal and structural shape of a piece, and then lay narrative (if that's the way you're going) over it. It's not narrative itself, it's the acuteness of its application. -- So anyway I was thinking about the kinds of structural models that I instinctively reach for, and realising that it's almost always musical, and very often it's vertical rather than horizontal -- about layering, adding, withdrawing, rather than linearity or chains of consequence (which I suppose is what the boffins call "plot"). And Underworld do that brilliantly on Second Toughest, and it gives them space for those brilliantly abstract lyrics:

rioja. rioja. reverend al green. deep blue morocco. the water on stone.
the water on concrete. the water on sand. the water on fire. smoke.
the wind. the salt. the bride boat coming. dave in the water.
old man einstein on top of his house. white deep blue
andalusia red yellow red yellow black car. red light.
far. black place. walls. blue chair. morocco. hamburg. paris.
the pieces of the puzzle are waiting. the water of the dark boats gliding.
the bride boat's gone out to sea and dave is floating.
dave is floating. and old man einstein crazy in his attic.

The scale they work on, and the propulsiveness they generate, and the painterly qualities of the lyrics: all these factors added together tend to make people call classic Underworld "cinematic": which is as good an encapsulation as any I know of what's wrong with theatre. To me they create a really theatrical space; but that's me swimming upstream again.

Oh, good, well as long as this silly interview format at least gets us to the time-honoured "what's wrong with theatre" conclusion, that's the main thing.

Let's go to bed, eh.

I bet that's not the first time you've said that to an interviewer.

Oh but it is. It so is.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Laef emi sado blong wokabaot

And so an underinspired but agreeable day suddenly lurches inexpressibly crapward with the announcement of the death of Ken Campbell. The web is already filling up with ad hoc tributes, all of which speak to the affection with which he was regarded and the esteem in which he was held, and I can't add much of value to that; but I won't feel ok until I've tried to say something.

I wouldn't be working in theatre if it weren't for Ken Campbell. Which is not to say that I'm anything like his biggest fan. Having stumbled across him in the early 90s -- I'm not quite sure which came first: discovering [The Recollections of a] Furtive Nudist, the first (and best) instalment of his Bald Trilogy monodramas, or seeing video footage of The Ken Campbell Roadshow in their prime -- "Ladies and gentlemen: David Rappaport - not the shortest man in the world, but fucking close!" -- but in fact I only ever saw one of his live shows, Theatre Stories at the Cottesloe in '97. After Violin Time, the scripts from his solos stopped being published and I sort of lost track, he'd pop up all over the place, the Drill Hall maybe or BAC, and it always seemed one could afford to miss the current show because the next would be along in a fortnight or so. But apart from a more close-up encounter, or series of encounters, in 1999, which I can only imagine I'll relate below, I can't say I stayed as engaged as I should have done with what he was actually doing.

Odd then to think of him as having been such a huge influence on me, but he was. And in a way that lazy and inattentive pattern I fell into kind of testifies to it. The specifics of Ken Campbell were mercurial, ungraspable, and always somewhat overshadowed or bountifully exceeded by the idea of Ken Campbell. In that way I suppose he resembles another "eccentric" hero of mine, Vivian Stanshall, whose example remains a sort of floating ideal quite detached from and impervious to the fact that so much of his work is actually a bit half-baked. I wouldn't say the same for Campbell -- well, how would I know, anyway? -- but it was always possible for the idea of him to be as proximal and immediate as his particular 'capers' became, to me, remote and indistinct. It was obvious to anyone who met him or conceived even the slightest appreciation for his work that to an extent -- and I'm careful to say that because I don't in any way want to denigrate Campbell's immense skill and old-school craft as a storyteller, communicator and showman -- all of the solo pieces, at least, whether on stage or in conversation or in the little clutch of science documentaries he made for Channel 4, were simply looping, intermeshing excerpts from a performance that was epic in scale and duration even for him, viz., Being Ken Campbell.

None of this would account for Campbell's importance to me (and indeed to a whole raft of British theatremakers of all stripes) were it not for the particular qualities of the ideas that he embodied. The best encapsulation of it, at least in its surface thrills, comes in Furtive Nudist, when he's discussing one of his own heroes, the supernaturalist writer Charles Fort (in whose honour the Fortean Times is named), and mentions Fort's characteristic heavy use of the hyphen to punctuate his prose: "It's Fort's opinion that everything in the Universe is linked with everything else -- so a Full Stop is a Lie -- Or a Hyphen coming straight at you." I've seduced people by quoting that line. (And by "people" there, I very obviously mean "one person".)

This somewhat hypomanic notion of universal interlinkage, of cosmic hyphenation, obviously induces a sublime rush: but Campbell seems to have lived, and certainly to have worked, according not only to its dilative sensationalism but also to its deeper, more robust implications. And this is where some of the obits now appearing seem already to be underestimating Campbell, suggesting a larksome but essentially trivial practice. What I learned from Campbell is profound, and nobody else has ever conveyed it quite so compellingly: the idea that theatre is important as a medium because it can -- and even should -- include all of this. All of what? All of everything, all of all of it. This is why it frustrates me that we still struggle to include science and philosophy and fifty-seven varieties of non-fiction in our theatrical composition; that we tend erroneously to suppose, even to insist, that entertainment and experimentation are contrary impulses; and that the pressure increases more and more to create on the smallest possible scale in terms of cast size and running time. Though these last practical considerations are, in the end, not the whole ballgame: Campbell's ambitiousness was actually incredibly consistent, whether we think of the 22-[plus]-hour cast-of-dozens The Warp (scripted in fact by Neil Oram) or one of the monodramas like Violin Time: the scope of the work is always larger even than the events or ideas it describes, and at its just-discernible outskirts is a pure theatricality beyond content, beyond performance, beyond what can be realized or even conceived. Ken Campbell's work has no perimeters, only horizons. Quite often in my work I find myself talking to co-devisors and other colleagues about the moment where "the roof has to come off": Jamie and Lucy lying on her bed looking up at the stars in Homemade; the culminating dream of skypointing in We Must Perform A Quirkafleeg!; the blinding white light silhouetting Herman at the end of Longwave; the closing sequence in The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley (you'll have to wait and see)... And I'm certain that that desire in me became articulable only because Ken Campbell made it so. I suppose because I never actually saw it on stage, I don't generally include Furtive Nudist in the Desert Island list of theatre works that have most influenced me, but I should.

It's probably news to almost everyone that I once-upon-a-time worked with Ken, but the circumstances were at best odd and marginal and at worst slightly shameful. This was back in 1999, while I was working on the first Signal to Noise show, The Consolations, and holding down what was, to be fair, the most interesting day-job I ever had. I was employed by the brand consultancy arm of the advertising company Leo Burnett; my official job title -- please remember this was Camden in the late 90s -- was "idea stimulator", and part of my role was to devise interesting experiences that would help brand and marketing managers in large companies to look in a fresh and imaginative way at their brands. Much of the time this amounted to not much more than creating mood boards and wacky props for the walls of meeting rooms in dreary hotels (I spent one of the longest days of my life watching a roomful of high-ups agonising over whether to rebrand Yellow Pages as BT Yellow Pages), or introducing a fifteen-minute juggling workshop somewhere into the process of rewriting some bluechip company's mission statement.

Anyway, I'd decided that a good way of messing with the heads of a score of marketing folks from Procter & Gamble, plus assorted LB people working on the P&G account, would be to give them a 'time machine' experience where they spent a day working from the past (which if I recall was a lecture about some historical aspect of sanitation), through the present (an art workshop creating paintings and sculptures out of P&G products -- presumably massively demeaning, though very genially led by the lovely Grace Adam), to the future. For the future section I convened a panel of people variously concerned with considering the ways in which our daily lives might change over the coming decades, from (the late) Nicholas Albery of the Institute for Social Inventions (which spawned the largely worthwhile Global Ideas Bank), to a young futurologist and stand-up comic called Nick Bostrom, who these days is directing the imposingly-named Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. But who could I possibly get to chair such a panel?

My head still spins when I recall how much Ken Campbell wanted to be paid for what amounted to four or five hours' work -- I figured out he was making my weekly pay-packet every twenty minutes -- but I'm sure in his place I'd have asked the same, and anyway, we agreed to it, and I can't honestly say it wasn't worth every cent. Not that he was jovial, exactly -- mutual friends agree that he could be slightly sour sometimes and a bit short of temper -- but expansive, certainly. After our preparatory meeting he diligently took away his briefing notes and I began to feel reassured that our maverick anchorman wasn't going to get me into trouble.

On the day of the event, he was warm and funny and his radical unpredictability seemed to have been largely stemmed by his wearing of clothes pegs attached to each of his gigantically unkempt eyebrows. As he sat behind the desk amiably interviewing the other speakers I really thought we were going to get away with it; alarm bells didn't start ringing until he was quite a long way into a story of having been invited to go into a classroom to talk to a bunch of teenagers (about what, I can't remember). His voice rose in volume and pitch and expanded in timbre as he explained how shocked he was by how untroublesome these teens were, how inert they seemed, and how his frustration at their docility eventually got the better of him. "I threw open the window," booms Campbell climactically, "and I shouted in the direction of the headmaster's office: 'All of these children are fucking dead!'" Titters and general frisson in the auditorium, and then Ken turns on the assembled delegates with a furious stare: "And it was your advertising that killed them!"

Ouch. Brilliant, but ouch. But brilliant.

Actually the punchline that I particularly cherish from that period, the sentence that I always bring to mind if I'm going to make an ill-advised attempt at an impression of Campbell's distinctive speaking style, was a much more joyous utterance, made at that first meeting at the consultancy, and referring I presume to the infamous episode where the cast of Derek Jarman's Tempest (Campbell played Gonzalo, breezily but pretty wonderfully) was temporarily snowed-in while on location. As I ran through the list of other speakers on the futurology panel, I mentioned Nicholas Albery, and asked if Ken had ever met him. (Suddenly I realise this story is probably libellous, but we'll press on.) Ken beamed with pleasure on hearing the name. "Ah, Nicholas! Yes, of course I know Nicholas!", he exclaimed. "The last time I saw Nicholas, he was getting sucked off in the lav by Mrs Heathcote Williams."

If nothing else, Campbell deserves to be remembered for his incredible ability to speak in italics when the story demanded it.

There's not much good Campbell stuff at YouTube to point you towards, but here are a couple of audio clips. Firstly, the opening of his CD Wol Wantok from 2000, the high-point of his campaign to teach everybody Bislama, the creole of Vanuatu ("wol wantok" -- world one-talk -- the Bislama rendering of 'global language'); the extract begins with a translation of the soliloquy "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow", from Macbeth -- which became, in the end, a fully-fledged Campbell production, Makbed: a project on whose earlyish stages my friend and colleague Tom Lyall worked. (The title of this post is the phrase "Life's but a walking shadow" in Bislama, as you may have figured out.)

The second clip is a transcendentally perverse one-minute condensation of the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool's production of The Warp, created for Morgan Fisher's brilliant 1980 compilation album Miniatures. (Seek it out if you don't already have it -- treats there gathered include R.D. Laing playing "It's A Long Way To Tipperary" on the piano, George Melly doing a bit of the Ursonate, Neil Innes and his infant son covering "Cum On Feel the Noize", and David Bedford's one-minute a capella version of the Ring Cycle. Awesome.) Even these tiny fragmented glimpses of the play seem to convey something of the excitement of The Warp: though I hope and trust there'll be a real, full staging of the play again before too long: as Ian Shuttleworth says, in his indispensible Warp tribute pages, "WATCH THIS SPACE!" (I don't mean this space in particular. At least I don't think I do.)

Anyway, here are the audio clips if you want them.

Ken Campbell

Or, better still, be your own audio clip: throw open the window this instant, orient yourself in roughly the direction of the Headmaster's office, and declaim into the wind and rain the closing lines of Furtive Nudist -- to be spoken, as they are written, in ALL CAPS. How can one speak of it any less full-throatedly? Ken Campbell is fucking dead. Thankfully, theatre is far more expansive than life and death (a suspicious looking binary if ever I saw one), and every full stop is just a hyphen coming straight at you. Thus: all together now: