Saturday, February 21, 2009

All face

For once I'm not going to apologise for the radio silence. It's been a while but, o, dawgs, if you'd been as busy as I have over the past two and a half weeks, you too would have returned a null string. 

It seems weird that when I last wrote, King Pelican rehearsals weren't even underway; this afternoon we finished our third week and moved out of our London space. Who knows where the time goes? Crikey. Tomorrow we head for Plymouth: an exodus that has unexpectedly, just this minute, put in my head John Edgar's lyric: "And the great whales are moving south to love one another." That's us right there. Anyway I'll come back to KP shortly, right now I'm supposed to be making a fuss about how busy I am. Evenings have mostly been slurped up by two other projects: The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley is starting to get pretty real and since I was last here some very cool leaps and bounds have been (respectively) leapt and bounded, including securing the services of the brilliantly talented Adam Smith as animator; and meanwhile, in another part of the universe, I'm continuing to work sporadically but intensely with Jonny Liron as we feel our way towards whatever's coming next for us in our artistic relationship. Add to these extracurricular commitments the usual raft of admin and production stuff and copywriting etc. etc., plus trying to stay somewhat in touch with, y'know, everything else in the world (not least, I fear, Masterchef), and I have to say I'm ready for a lie-in tomorrow: or, more realistically, a nap on the train.

So, what shall I tell you about King Pelican? (Other than, obviously, please come and see it: and please don't imagine it'll turn up sometime in London because everything eventually does; Speed Death of the Radiant Child still hasn't, and presumably won't, and King P. seems every bit as bespoked to the Drum as did that earlier piece.) I've had a fantastically enjoyable few weeks on it, in most of the important ways, but it's also been difficult and confusing and my confidence hasn't been at its highest. The good stuff: the cast (Gerard Bell, Maggie Henderson, and Jonny) are a complete delight to be around, an absolute treat, and the rest of the creative team and the stage management unit are superb. So going in to the room each day has never felt daunting or a drag. We play a lot of basketball and eat a lot of cookies. The tricky thing: I guess above all I feel like I've not been on good form, for reasons that I think are almost entirely to do with this (to me) peculiar model of writing a script first, and then taking it into the room and trying to stage it. Not even Speed Death worked like that: in fact, aside from my solo pieces, I haven't worked this way, with a more-or-less settled script from the start of the process and only the littlest room for devising, since Weepie in 1996 -- and I have to say, I don't think this is where my strength lies. I mean I obviously have as a director some privileged understanding of what I was getting at as a writer, but the model still feels curiously inert. I'm in a room with three of the most creative performers you could ever wish to have at your disposal, all of them artists in their own right, each from a very different background but full of a generous curiosity about each other and all eager to stretch themselves. Bluntly, I feel like I'm wasting ninety per cent of the opportunity that this represents, by merely trying to use them to enact decisions that, to a considerable extent, had already been made. I think it's an interesting play, and I know that together we're capable of making a good account of it, particularly once the physical production is realised. I also know it's a deliberately confounding play and often when I feel slightly dissatisfied with portions of it, it's because that's the feeling that those bits are designed to induce -- or, rather, it has to do those things in order to be able to reach some quite different territories later on. ...Well, I guess we'll see. I'm excited about being in Plymouth for a while, excited to see the whole thing come together. But compared with those excitements -- let alone the excitements of working with Jonny in the much more sharp-end exploratory context of our other project -- the nuts and bolts of being a 'new writing' director don't seem to come easily and they don't particularly turn me on.

It's been nice during this time to be seeing a fair few other things as well; I won't be able to get into any of this in any depth, at least not without sacrificing tonight's sleep (to which I've been eagerly looking forward since about 8 o'clock this morning), but for the record and/or the little that it's worth:

It was good to see Traces again, and with Jonny this time, who rated its Edinburgh '07 outing as exceptionally highly as I did. But also, in some ways, not so good to see it again. The Peacock Theatre is not a great venue for it and we suffered from being way back in the stalls: at which remove, the ferociously physical, rough-and-ready show we loved at the Assembly Rooms becomes oddly muted and decorative. Unable to hear breath, or see sweat, we instead watch pleasant skywriting with unknowable virtuoso bodies: where Edinburgh Traces was about hanging out with your mates, London pros-arch Traces is about watching ballet. The big personalities of the individual performers still come through loud and clear, though Raphael Cruz was out through injury, replaced by a younger performer called Philip Rosenberg; though I didn't mind this as much as Jonny did -- I thought Philip was pretty appealing to watch (though obviously less highly skilled) -- it did cause the tightness of the show, or at any rate of the feel of the show, the fealty of it even, to unwind a bit. Ultimately, Traces was originally brilliant not because of the circus stuff -- which is unassailably excellent but about which I don't find I care all that much -- but because it was great theatre, and theatre partly about theatre, about ephemerality, about liveness, about intimacy and friendship and about what it means to perform and what it means to be a spectator. For some reason, none of this rang quite so true this time -- perhaps because, by persisting at all, the show has broken some part of its promise to us, that the moments being shared by the performers, and between them and us, were maybe not so precious or precarious after all. But there's no denying it can still deliver considerable charm and immense thrills -- not least during the still-breathtaking opening sequence, which should be a reference point for pretty much every ensemble theatre piece that ever gets made from now on.

pitie is the seventh show I've seen by Les Ballets C. de la B. -- not including Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's recent Myth, which was developed independently of the company but retains much of its distinctive aesthetic language -- and it's undeniably true that some features of that signature style no longer have the impact that they once did: I remember sitting open-mouthed throughout pretty much the whole of Rien de Rien, several years ago, but one is no longer surprised in quite the same way by either the lexis or the syntax of the work. That said, I vastly preferred pitie to the two previous productions I'd seen that were choreographed by the company's director, Alain Platel -- Wolf and VSPRS. The first half-hour was vaguely interesting but uninspiring -- a sequence of tableaux apparently inspired by Renaissance painting really stank of the rehearsal room; but then, a series of incredibly carefully judged moments re-snagged my attention and from then on I was engrossed and, ultimately, very moved. I wonder if I'd have been so enthralled had I not been watching as a director, watching the thought-in-space of another, wildly inventive, director; I can't possibly know, obviously, though I'm not sure that a person who didn't spend all day every day thinking about moving bodies in space would be so fascinated by Platel's choices -- though obviously these things are fascinating not least because of the effects they create, which hopefully are (potentially) stimulating to the perceptions of all comers, whether or not they're reading the choreography and scenography at such a consciously analytical level. I would like to see the C. de la B. language continue to expand and evolve (though to be fair I thought the solemnity of pitie was a welcome new note in Platel's tonal compass); but it should also be said that that language has had probably a greater impact on my thinking about the making of theatre, especially at that larger scale, than any other over the past decade, and to spend two hours watching and listening to it is always going to be inexpressibly stimulating at a basic level at least.

Also at Sadlers Wells -- all hail the patron saint of Multibuy offers, whomsoever that might be -- was an odd but ultimately surprisingly substantial little piece from the great Jerome Bel. (Not to be confused with my current colleague Gerard Bell, his English counterpart in almost every way...) In A Spectator (billed as 27 Performances in your listings magazine), Bel essentially delivered a talk, illustrated physically at some moments, in which he attempted to describe some key works he had seen -- performances by Robert Wilson, Trisha Brown, Pina Bausch, Raimond Hoghe, Steve Paxton and others -- and indicate what he gleaned from them with regard to his understanding of the role of the spectator encountering theatre/dance performance. The insights themselves would probably not be revelatory to any switched on practitioner (and it's awfully hard to see who else the piece is designed to be speaking to), but what made Bel's invocation and discussion of these important works really striking is that the modesty of the conceit -- modesty in production terms, if not as regards the claim of authority that comes inextricably bundled with the concept -- created an incredibly resonant space in which the details, both visible and implied, of his presentation were left to reverberate tantalisingly -- as so often with Bel. So: there is this man on stage, standing in a cutely diffident posture, talking a little haltingly in his (fine but) unconfident English, his highly expressive face outperforming the rest of him like a Ronald Searle cartoon might. And suddenly I'm wondering: am I watching a dance performance, when I watch Bel's eyebrows go up and down as he talks? And when he seems to lose his thread, am I absolutely sure he's not rehearsed it? (Especially given his earlier work Pichet Klunchun & Myself, which precisely re-staged, night after night, a conversation that had taken place for real at some previous time.) I don't know the answers to these questions, and I don't think Bel wants me to know; but I do think that, at the very least, to whatever extent he's easily capable of creating a performance/talk in which the performance matrix is flickering much less than it does here, he's trying to make me feel for myself, even as he's talking about it, the complexity of being a witness. And at a time when so much supposedly interactive work is asking so much less of its audience, it's extremely exciting and wonderfully timely that Bel wants to re-state these basic questions, and reaffirm the responsibilities of both artist and spectator in destroying the relational topos of the 'passive' audience. Which is somewhat to say that, as ever, Bel's barely hidden agenda is at least partly erotic: for instance, in the moment where we seem to be watching him genuinely think about a sentence he's having trouble finishing. Or is this too a performance? -- eyewitness accounts suggest something very similar happens the following night -- and what's at stake if it is?

You might think it would be hard to imagine a more dissimilar experience to Bel's tiny talk than the Headlong King Lear, currently installed at the Young Vic: but they have more in common than you'd suppose. The great strength of this Lear is that it has little time for seduction, for immersion, for sweeping you off your feet and making you forget who and where you are. Its weakness perhaps is that the slight chilliness with which it refuses such luxuriance makes it hard to scrutinise or even discern the exact contours of its depths. The short version of all of the above is, you don't lose yourself in this production, but you also don't find yourself. What's intriguing is how the apparatus of its conceptual cool comes dressed up as a very mildly souped-up replay of some relatively conservative aesthetic and choreographic moves from the high days and holidays of upscale In Yer Face drama. Rupert Goold may be the most distinctively feted director of his generation (or may not, after the bumpy reception this Lear has had -- though that seems to indicate, at worst, chinks in a suit of armour that Goold would almost certainly have no serious interest in anyway), and it may indeed have irked his leading man, the hauntingly frail-seeming Pete Postlethwaite, that this production was so much read as Goold's Lear (rather than Postlethwaite's): but this is emphatically not "director's theatre" of the kind our Eurosceptic parents warned us about, nor the creeping "auteurism" that so many middle-of-the-road playwrights like to use, to such little effect, as a piƱata when they feel like giving something -- anything, but preferably something inexistent which cannot then speak up for itself -- an aggrieved thwack. Goold clearly loves actors, and audiences; he loves texts; and he loves the history of all of these things, and of the cultures in which they move and meet. He likes to be playful, is content (on this evidence) sometimes to be vulgar. The worst of it is when he nicks stuff not from the marketplace of cult films and tv-sized politics, but from a long-since superseded edition of Physical Theatre for Dummies: which, very sadly and annoyingly in this case, means a truly wretched storm scene, especially the preamble thereto. There's a time and a place for plumbing the hidden shallows; call me a taxi but I'd like this to carry some emotional weight, and it doesn't. (Won't? Daren't?) Certainly it's an evening full of crackingly smart, often really acute, ideas -- and it values those ideas in their briefly flourishing nodal instances over the long game of argument and registral coherence; in some contexts this would conceivably feel retrograde, but when it comes to Shakespeare we're still playing catch-up, and if it's possible to stage this play at all at the moment (and I suspect this production indicates to me that it's not, at least not with this degree of attentiveness), then it's hard to imagine it being done more cogently than this. I'm not as bowled over by the acting as many others have been, but there are two outstanding performances: Jonjo O'Neill as a gorgeously sinuous and available Edmund, negotiating with sometimes breathtaking suppleness the tricky gap between text and audience; and Jacob Anderson as a phantasmic Boy -- a better, more achieved, Fool, in many ways, than is Forbes Masson (horrible) in that role, and a more striking presence in the stage proposition than anyone else -- save, perhaps, for the very end, when Pete Postlethwaite, smelling more than ever of mortality, takes his solo call before a cheering, stamping audience. Goold's King Lear is, on its own terms, a considerable success (though I wish I knew how much it was tweaked in transit between Liverpool and London -- I'd always choose the director's cut in the case of this director); in terms of what theatre now has to do to reboot itself in order to re-encounter Shakespeare in a culture in which postmodernism itself is looking seriously (and I mean seriously) exhausted, it's somewhere in the middle of nowhere. But that's not the agenda it means to sign up to; so, no hard feelings on that score.

Placing themselves somewhat closer to that agenda, or at least to the questions it comprises, Apocryphal Theatre returned last week to Camden People's Theatre (where they remain till March 1st -- info and booking here) with their newest piece, the resonantly titled Besides, you lose your soul, or The History of Western Civilisation. Herein, a small number of performers (mostly but not all actors), surrounded by a sprawling mini-citadel of textbooks, attempt something close to a post mortem on the corpus of classic Western philosophical thought, especially that region of it which attempts to grapple with the ineffabilities of the soul, hoping to bring whatever excavated insights they can to bear on the question -- or rather, the silence, given that no plausible question can really be formulated -- of the state sanctioning and enaction of torture. The piece picks up both a performance language and an ethical remit from previous Apocryphal works such as The Jesus Guy, but extends and amplifies them to very considerable effect. I won't pre-empt my review of the piece, which will eventually appear in Total Theatre, but I will urge everyone who possibly can to go and see, and sit with, and help to construct, this work: it's among the most important stuff out there, and for all that I might have misgivings about some aspects of it, both in relation to Apocryphal's language and aesthetic in general and with regard to this remarkable new piece in particular, nothing else in town is going to offer -- or invite -- so much. It's apt that it all ends performing obeisance (discreetly) to Cage: resembling in this respect his own productions, Besides... is high on curiosity and low on desire -- which is to say that its intellectual project and its political target both feel impatient with the body, which is an odd situation for a piece to adopt that so avowedly and effectively insists on its opposition to the exploitation of the body as imperial battleground -- though my guess is that's just a (small) spectacular dissonance in the construction of the piece, rather than a plea for some speciously efficacious transcendence. (You can bet I won't be saying that in my 250 words for Total Theatre.)

* * *

Moving a little away from these reports from individual performances, I've had two theatre-related things on my mind this fortnight.

The first is pretty personal, and I'm not sure I should even be writing about it, if by doing so I drag it into a public place that it hasn't so far occupied. If anyone directly or indirectly involved in the events to which I'm referring wants me to remove what follows, please say so, and I immediately will.

I've often thought that one way of writing a (partial, but not insanely partial) history of experimental theatre in London over the past decade or so would be to describe the comings and goings at one particular house I know, south of the river (I won't say exactly where), where an extraordinary number of lynchpin artists and makers -- performers, directors, writers, designers... -- have either lived, or stayed for a while, or passed through, or at least got drunk a time or two. I myself slept on its floors during two different stretches of inadvertent peripatesis, and an attempt to count on the fingers of my hands the friends who've made it their home (or home from home) at various times quickly starts to require the addition of prosthetic digits. It is not a glamorous or distinguished place, just a little terraced house in an unremarkable side-street, but as a centre of gravity it's been a truly notable hub.

At this point one must name names, or one name at least. Among the longterm occupants of the house is a discombobulating genius by the name of Simon Kane. You can read about him here and see him up to mischief here -- though I'm hoping you already know him because maybe you saw, for example, his extraordinary solo Jonah Non Grata at some point. But alas, no sooner has Simon entered this paragraph than some unfathomable shit happens. A couple of weeks ago, there was a fire at the house, which landed Simon in intensive care and, by all accounts, miraculously fortunate in that outcome. Other friends of mine are, or were, also resident, and have had a pretty traumatic time of it too: but I'm sure they'll forgive me for mostly having Simon on my mind -- as I'm sure has been true of them too.

Simon's had a rough time of it -- if you were drawing a graph of his recovery, then (a) it would be a pretty wiggly line, and (b) it's pretty clear you're going to need a lot more graph paper before you're done. So, I'm suggesting, let's not draw that graph exactly. But even if things aren't on the up and up, they're on the single up, and that's sufficiently OK. I apologise if I'm breaking this news to anyone who knows Simon but didn't know all this had happened. Yeah, I probably shouldn't even be writing this. But I'm doing so partly because it really brings vividly home one of the things I said in a recent conversation among the commentary fields behind this blog -- a conversation in which Simon was, as he so often is, a brilliant and incorrigible participant. The 'theatre community' that we sometimes think about rather abstractly is, in our immediate experience, made mostly out of people we personally know and admire, and out of friendships and working relationships that we deeply value. To say this is not really to have said anything terribly profound, of course. There's just something about the idea of that house on fire -- or now, in the aftermath, in a pretty sorry state -- that makes those bonds feel very urgently alive, and our closeness worth reaffirming. The Controlling Thompson sends fondest love to Simon, and to all the other residents, and to all of us, even unto Kevin Bacon and beyond, who know each other, and have sat up drinking late into the night in dingy terraced houses everywhere, arguing about theatre and making it personal: which it always is, always was, and, I hope to God, will always be.

The other thing I wanted to mention was, at one point last week, nearly a blog post in its own right, and I have at this juncture -- having already been writing this for nearly three hours -- to promise myself that it won't turn into a whole big thing now. Perhaps I can prophylactically imagine the bored sighing of howevermany-hundred Thompson's regulars as I announce my intention to return, even fleetingly, to a topic on which this blog has expended more syllables than possibly any other: that is, the place within theatre of naked bodies, and in particular sexualised nakedness.

This relapse is prompted by a recent -- though no longer terribly recent -- spate of posts and discussions at the Guardian blog, and principally by two short pieces by writers whose views I am more than inclined to take seriously: the brilliant and stalwart critic Lyn Gardner, and the director Natalie Abrahami. Lyn's piece, prompted by the uneasy anticipation of having to sit through the sex scenes in Spring Awakening, set out the case for the metaphorical depiction of sex, and the production of erotic sensation through careful understatement or stylistic translation, rather than through simulation with some kind of realism as its target; Natalie subsequently picked up on Lyn's closing comment "that, when it comes to love and lust, dance -- with its easy access to metaphor -- often does these things so much better than theatre", and expanded on it with particular reference to her own current production, Unbroken, at the Gate, which does just that. (I haven't seen it, and for logistical reasons now can't, which may or may not be a shame, though at any rate Natalie is certainly a talent to be reckoned with.)

Before proceeding any further I have to point to a problem common to both these articles and therefore, kind of inevitably, also to what I'm about to say: which is that they quite easily and uncarefully conflate nudity (an extremely loaded term in itself) and sex, which is preposterous if you consider it simply in the context of, oh, say, your life. One aspect of this fortnight's work on King Pelican is that I've once again been working on staging nakedness -- the eighth theatre piece in which I've done so; in only about half of those instances -- it's obviously hard to be clearcut about it -- does the presentation of the naked body intentionally attach to some overtly sexual idea. People may find that watching a naked body turns them on even when the piece isn't going out of its way to induce those sensations, and that's just one of a whole panoply of things that as a director I can't control and anyway don't want to. The nakedness in King Pelican is not sexually framed, but it is tender and generous and in a sense romantic and these things may have something to do with sex and anyone who produces a sexual reading from it is not wrong. Anyway, I'd rather be more discriminating than I'm about to be in discussing nakedness and sex as distinct from each other, which they clearly are; but actually I think the best thing I can do if I'm to avoid staying up all night is to throw some basically unconnected thoughts out and then if anyone wants to talk back, I'm happy to meet them in the comments zone and see where else we get. It hardly needs re-saying that this blog is absolutely lousy with discussions of this topic, and a little scrolling and skipping about will certainly turn up some more carefully argued stuff.

My real beef with these blog pieces is actually only circumstantially about the attitudes they describe to staged sex and/or nudity per se: I mean I think there is a structural problem which could be about a lot of other things, and often is. It's basically a fallacy depending on the premise that theatre "can't do" certain things. It may or may not be true that, as Lyn says, "sex on stage is often a toe-curling embarrassment for audiences": but as she also hints (with regard to "acting drunk"), perhaps the problem around 'simulated sex' is not with sex but with simulation. (I feel the same about watching people "drink" tea out of empty cups. It makes me furious and depressed, always.) So am I suggesting that the answer is to stage "real" sex? Well, in some contexts or cases it might possibly be, but before the hyperventilation commences, let me wheel back to the point I'm actually trying to make, which is more procedural. It's about what we do when we think theatre has a problem with presenting us with something, whether that's a particular idea or image or a whole category of experience or behaviour. If our assessment is that we want theatre to be able to present to us some account of what we take to be, or want to suggest is, important or significant, then that, with all its ramifications, will have to be the starting point for our consideration of how we then work. So I'm saying, if it's potentially of importance that sex might be something that theatre can contain, in a mode that's candid and indicative rather than retreating into metaphor or symbolism, then we make that our commitment, and work from there. What, in other words, would a theatre in which sex wasn't an embarrassment first have to make possible that it currently doesn't or can't? And how do we make that theatre?

For me, the question around nakedness is an open-and-shut case. For reasons that I won't start trying to outline (again, look around the blog, or await some stuff I'm writing about all this as part of an ongoing critical project that I hope will emerge before too long), I think pretty much the most significant thing theatre can do is put a naked person on stage and let you look at them. Because nonsubjunctivity is an a priori commitment for me, my feelings about staging sex are more complex. Regarding the generation of erotic sensation, that too is, for me, really crucial, fundamentally so, but mostly that will be about a relationship between the performer and the audience, the performer very much 'turned out' (in my current favoured jargon) -- a sort of physical version of direct address. Watching a "sex scene" between two people is another matter: it wouldn't be categorically distinct or discontinuous from the 'meaning' of watching two people have sex in 'real life': which is to say, it's fraught, complex, though not necessarily unproductive. Watching two people pretending to have sex is no less (or more) bizarre in a theatre than it would be anywhere else. Watching metaphors bumping into other metaphors may be erotic but it's unlikely to be theatrical in the mode that currently interests me, and is in danger of political vacuity. Et cetera. What's clear is that the more that sex -- like many other behaviours -- is screened off by metaphor or other kinds of deferral, or the more it is subsumed by the panicky self-denial of simulation, the less consequential it is in the context of a theatre encounter.

So, Lyn's perfectly acute examination of the problems inherent in staging sex should not be read as a list of reasons why theatre can't "do" sex, but as a list of potential challenges to the structures underlying the staging of anything.

The other thing I want to pick up -- quickly -- I've already spent more time on this than I intended to -- is how body-averse a lot of this rhetoric is, especially in Natalie's post. It's a very common feeling though, for sure. She says: "I tend not to want to create situations for audience members where they must decide between following the dialogue or following an actor's paraphernalia around the stage." The suggestion, amplified elsewhere in the piece, is that if my attention is on the body of a naked actor rather than on what is being said, I have been distracted, and am receiving and processing less information than I ought, or the wrong information altogether. I wonder why this is felt to be so. I mean, for a start, there couldn't be a clearer indication that, even at the newly refreshed, dance-friendly Gate, spoken text must have precedence over the body, because the speech moves more information around. This would of course be a curious position for the director of such a dance-led piece to occupy: and with stricter parsing we see that it's not quite it. The attention being focused on the body might (or might not) be fine, but what Natalie implies is that the naked body becomes somehow less than a whole body, wholly revealed, because it invites fixation on "paraphernalia". -- The winsomely comical choice of word speaks infinite volumes.

Let's not use that word, OK? I'm going to agree with her: sometimes I'll see a naked male actor on stage and I'll be looking at his cock, and maybe if it's a nice-looking cock I'll be looking at it quite a lot, and maybe if it's that nice I might not be able to multitask and listen at the same time to what somebody's saying in another part of the stage. Maybe all I'll remember when I get home is that I saw a really nice cock. Thus we end up with a question about value. Not value-for-money (I paid £12 for this-much data and then was distracted by someone's cock) but value within the economy of presence. If I spent all night looking at the actor's face, enjoying that particular face, I might disappoint a director who was particularly concerned to impart a larger experience, but that would more obviously be that director's problem, right? I chose to look at the face because I found it beautiful, profound, it made me think about things, it moved me, or maybe I just liked looking at it. I had an experience that I found satisfactory. If the rest of your piece had been more interesting than the face, I'd have stopped looking, or looking only, at the face. Right? This feels like a conversation that could be rationally had. It's not far off saying "I couldn't take my eyes off Maggie Smith", is it? But. If the most interesting thing on stage is someone's penis, however (or breasts or whatever's your poison), why should I not enjoy looking at it, and thinking about it, and about the actor whose penis it is, and perhaps about my penis, or penises I have known, and pass an agreeable and interesting evening that way? I mean, why not? We are distracted -- by the topical cultural trivialisation of the penis versus the face, and of the body versus the text -- from the issue that really underlies all this nonsense, which is that Natalie, like most directors, seems to want to tell the audience what experience to have: and in deviating from that, by investing in an adventure we've chosen ourselves, we usurp her authority. As so often in theatre, whatever we think we're talking about, we're actually talking about power, and, as usual, about a deep refusal to accept that the artist can do no more than offer the elements out of which the spectator constructs a piece that interests them.

As for the face / cock thing, I'm reminded mostly of a conversation I had with Jonny Liron in the early stages of making Hey Mathew -- which was (if you've just joined us) certainly the most sexually explicit performance work I've ever seen, let alone made. We were still getting to know each other at this point, and I wondered aloud if it bothered him that, as we created some of the key images -- in which not only was he wholly or partly naked but also quite often had a hard-on -- my attention as viewer and collaborator was quite often, and quite obviously, on his cock rather than his face: did he find that diminishing or reductive at all? I can't remember his reply verbatim but the content was absolutely and unambiguously along these lines: If I'm going to be brave enough to show you my cock, he said, the least you can do is look at it.

Lots of people had lots of different reactions to Hey Mathew, and quite a few people had different reactions at the time than they went on to have subsequently. (An explicit candour that had felt moving and beautiful at the time became far more jaggedly problematic in the cold light of the following day.) Certainly we went a long way out on a limb -- because what we wanted to do felt, and continues to feel, that important -- maybe the most important thing we can do right now; we try, we learn, we'll keep trying, I'm sure it'll never be less than the most difficult thing we do. Because the alternative is a coy, smirking language of "paraphernalia" and "jiggling" [Lyn G.] and the sustenance of a culture in which one of the obvious implications of Paul Goodman's writing and thinking in Growing Up Absurd and elsewhere -- the literary work that first inspired Hey Mathew -- remains disastrously true: that young men grow up bombarded with messages that tell them that what they have between their legs is comical and embarrassing and if they show it to anyone they become less than whole: so what are they then to do with what they deeply know to be true -- that the pleasure they get from their cocks is profoundly significant and crucially formative in the development of their meaningful self-identification -- other than to strive to re-assert it in violent and antisocial ways?

This has been more of a ramble than an argument and I'm too low on steam to go back and tidy it up into something more, er, penetrating. So I'll leave it there -- but no doubt we'll return to these topics as incessantly and creepily as we always have, eh?

Oh, but, wait, I meant to drop this in -- for those who are uncomfortably distracted by nakedness and perturbed by paraphernalia as opposed to the face. From Montaigne, & first published in 1603:

A certaine man demanded of one of our loytring rogues whom in the deep of frosty Winter he saw wandering up and downe with nothing but his shirt about him, and yet as blithe and lusty as another that keepes himselfe muffled and wrapt in wanne furres up to the eares; how he could have patience to go so. 'And have not you, good Sir' (answered he) 'your face all bare? Imagine I am all face.'

* * *

Just quickly, a few brief remarks about stuff I've been reading of late.

Most interesting of all, I guess, is Dave Beech 's essay 'Recovering Radicalism' in the February issue of Art Monthly. I think I issued a halloo in these pages a few months ago when Beech did a terrific piece on (and contra) the uses to which relational aesthetics puts 'participation': this latest piece in a sense picks up where that left off, arguing that postmodernism is in decline and that a new space is subsequently opening out for a politically engaged critical art. The godfather here is obviously Jameson. As Beech puts it: "Postmodernism ... is an accurate expression of the new experiences brought about by late capitalism, but only -- and this cannot be underestimated -- if we accept that there is no alternative." His piece is in part prompted by, and functions excitingly as a corrective to, the model of 'altermodernism' being promoted by Nicolas Bourriaud through his curation of this year's Tate Triennial. There's still lots to be interested by in Bourriaud, I think, and I'm interested to see the Triennial, but I suspect Beech is nearer the mark, or at least closer to my own hunches (with regard to the ideas around post-liminality that I've been discussing on and off here and hereabouts over the past couple of years). Either way, it's great that we're definitely seeing the mainstream emergence of an attempt to describe something beyond postmodernism: all serious theatre-makers will want to be a part of the conversation, as it has ramifications for theatre and performance perhaps more than any other artform.

The current (Winter) issue of Chicago Review has a substantial feature, edited by Josh Kotin and the brilliant Michael Kindellan, on Stephen Rodefer. I think I've written about Rodefer here a couple of times over the past year or so, but in case I dreamt it, the headlines are these. Stephen Rodefer is a fuckwad. No one, I think, would go out of their way to dispute this. He's one of only, now let's see, four poets whose lights I've ever wanted to punch all the way out, and of those four, he's definitely the one who's best described as a fuckwad. But he is, it must be admitted, our fuckwad: which is partly to say, the guy can really, really write. CR has a longish, suitably dishevelled interview with him, a couple of good essays (including rather a touching one by Keston Sutherland), and best of all a good dollop of Rodefer's writing, both recent poetry and earlier critical prose. As a companion to the newish and indispensible Carcanet selected, Call it Thought, it's a more than worthwhile investment, moneywise, attentionwise, every which way.

I've been enjoying, too, in marginally lower-falutin' mode, Simon Reynolds's Totally Wired: Post-Punk Interviews & Overviews. This is a nice adjunct (with a capital ker-ching!, I'm sure) to Reynolds's earlier Rip It Up, which was an incredibly exciting read -- at any rate, I guess, if you know at least some of the music being discussed. Post-punk is where a lot of my heart is, really, and the interviews collected in the new volume have my aorta all a-quiver. Anthony H. Wilson and Paul Morley give predictably good gab, but happier still, the terrific chat with Green Gartside has sent me back to early Scritti Politti with real enthusiasm. A good thing to read while you're deciding what else to read instead.

Blogospherically speaking, I should try to divert your attention first to today's post at Dennis Cooper's blog. It's a special feature on Thomas Moore, a writer and musician (and dear pal o' mine) who collaborated beautifully on Hey Mathew and whose new book of poems, Hospital, has recently emerged and is very fine, excruciatingly so in places. The feature at DC's includes (what feels like) a substantial interview which I conducted with Tom by email a couple of weeks back and with which I'm kind of pleased.

Jack Speckleton is part of the Jersey Invasion by which London N16 is currently gripped (and gurgling with febrile pleasure): he's a very fine actor, and by all accounts a terrific musician too. ...And he's kind of cute, but don't tell him I said so. To which clutch of acclamations can now be added high praise for his new blog, This Ain't Correct. Specko writes like a dream, mostly about music, which (as any fule kno) is pretty much the hardest thing in the universe to write about. Spare it a bookmark, you'll be glad you did.

And I think I'll stop there, as MY EYES ARE LEAKING MARMITE.

I should be online while I'm in Plymouth (in a not-unswanky flat currently occupied, I'm told, by David Essex -- so that's going to need a deep clean before I move in...) so I'll try and make some noize while I'm away. Come and visit! There's the sea and everything.

In the meantime, I lay this fond sayonara at your feet and steal away like a juvenile milk thief at the crack of dawn. Oh I just can't stay away from that juvenile milk.

Yrs till the stars lose their glory

Monday, February 02, 2009

A quick note on likeness

So the first day of rehearsals for King Pelican disappeared under several inches of snow. Fantastically disappointing after such a long countdown, though it's hard to be cross at the snow, which is only doing what it's supposed to do.

Time instead to start sifting through the large pile of submissions from animators who've said they'd like to work with us on Wound Man and Shirley. We did a couple of really fun readings of Wound Man last week, in London and Manchester, which only served to amplify our sense that the animation in the show is all about extending the tone of the piece into a visual language. Definitely that rather than trying to illustrate the narrative, which is a job best done by everyone's brain (and/or whatever other organs they wish to press into service).

Looking at various animators' YouTube channels this afternoon, I saw that many of them had links to a guy I'd never come across before but who is obviously pretty hot in cartoonland at the moment. (No, no, I know they're not cartoons, I'm just being naughty.) The gentleman in question is a New York artist by the name of Adam Pesapane, a.k.a PES, and I was particularly struck by his beautifully ingenious little film Western Spaghetti, which feels like a cheerful American take on classic Svankmajer:

The incredibly economical visual wit is hugely appealing, I think. But it kind of got me reflecting in a new way on the conversation that emerged, via rather a bumpy and not always good-humoured route, in response to my last post, and which has by now transmogrified into a fascinating conversation between two longtime denizens of Thompsons about ideas to do with audience roles in relation to play and/or (by which I mean as variably distinct from) performance. What I'm thinking hasn't quite formed yet but it's something along these lines.

Recovery, the improvised piece with Jeremy Hardingham and Jonny Liron that I blogged about last time, was very much concerned with the specific qualities of materials: as is Western Spaghetti. But the imaginative extensions of PES's film are all to do with (a)likeness -- that one thing can stand in for another; Western Spaghetti becomes sort of a Martian-school poem accumulating these amusing resemblances. (For some reason it's way more interesting as a series of visual propositions than it would be as, say, a Craig Raine poem.)

The total theatre of Lepage or Complicite, in its classic 80s/90s dialects (of which traces remain even in those artists' sophisticated video-heavy current works), also derives a lot of its springy energy and fluid dynamics from exactly this kind of metaphorical deployment of objects and materials, often with an upwardly-mobile junkshop aesthetic. (We can't afford to put an aeroplane on stage, and anyway it would be grandiose to do so: so here's one we made earlier -- no, here's one we only just thought of [that's the other important bit of the technology: making it feel as improvised after a year of performances as it would have felt in the rehearsal room where it was first discovered] -- created out of a colander and a shower curtain.) I love this stuff, am a big fan of it -- most recently in Akhe's constrained and uncharacteristically heavy-footed but nonetheless likeable Faust.2360 Words -- but have never really incorporated it much into my own language.

The reason for that seems to be becoming clearer of late. I find I prefer work -- in theatre and performance, at least; I don't mind so much in other media -- that sets out to say what something is, and not what it's like, or what it reminds us of, or whether we recognize it, or what else it might be. In a way this is a sort of antithesis of the pronouncement that Robert Wilson has been reiterating (with small variations) throughout his career: "My responsibility in creating for the theatre is not to say what something is, but to ask, 'What is it?'" This kind of holding-in-question seems at first glance both artistically livelier and politically more pertinent -- the ways in which even the familiar might contain multitudes of otherness, whole panoplies of potential change... But the fact is, theatre now exists within an apparently inexhaustibly liminoid culture, in which the mutability of function and identity is not only in itself a given, but also has become uncoupled from any sense of political programme or location. To be able to say what something materially or objectively is has become, post-Thatcher and mid-Web 2.0, the more radical, more dissident position than to gesture vaguely at its categorical slipperiness and its ineluctable contingency.

Of course there is something impossible in this task. The materials in Recovery included eggs, rope, wine, crepe bandage... -- it's very hard to bring any of these into play without the uncontrollable invocation of an infinite net of resonances and hidden narratives. The great materialist visual/performance artists from whom we were hoping to draw inspiration, from Beuys to Schwarzkogler to Matthew Barney, are all also inveterate myth-makers, whose presentation of the object or the substance is always also a re-presentation, and a private assertion (or half-stifled limning) of personal codes and relations which, in the multiplicating context of theatre, go reverberantly apeshit. So this is not about some kind of anti-poetic purity kick and it's certainly not about simplicity or singularity.

Nonetheless, at base, there seems to be a fundamental difference in these two gestures, the difference between the indicative and the subjunctive, between what is and what if. And I seek to extend this concern not only to my self-presentation and my presentation of others (as in Hey Mathew, say, most contentiously) but also to my response to the presence of the audience and the negotiation of their self-consciousness. When Paul Goodman says "I'd rather have the watchers moved by what they are doing -- watching", it's difficult to know exactly which point he's making: is he saying that the value resides in watching per se -- however devalued that may be in leading-edge theatre; or is he saying that what's important is the audience's sense that they themselves are doing something that's important, and that this is true whether they're ('simply') watching or whether they participate much more substantively in the generation of the material and the pursuit of its argument. But either way, some reflection of my point can be made out there. We say who we are, not who we might be; we make a commitment that begins in an account of what is, in all the turbulence and obliquity of that matter. Until we can see who, and what, we are, in relation to each other and the objects and materials we use and the resources we share (or don't), the question of what else there could be and what the various things we call "this" or "here" might be like under other circumstances is nearly incomprehensible, except in a subjunctive, speculative fantasy that does nothing more than take us away from ourselves for a while: a pleasure, but one entirely propelled by privilege -- whether that's the privilege of leisure time, or the privilege of being a child.