Monday, August 09, 2010

Edinburgh diary 2010: #3

Wednesday 4th August: Mostly, no. Not quite today, not really. Never quite shed the feeling I woke up with -- my body apparently under the impression that I spent all of yesterday playing rugby. Against psychopaths. Weird that such a sedentary play should be so physically gruelling. Maybe when I'm less rubbish at it, it'll feel easier. Also, I've been deaf on-and-off in my left ear for the last week and a half -- I'm putting drops in and the last few days it's been a lot better but today it was back to square two, which was frustrating as well as, in its physical effect, disorienting and a bit draining -- it takes a certain amount of low-level effort just to stay tuned in to what people are saying.

A great conversation though with Karl and Andy at lunchtime, our first extended one-to-one (or two-to-one) chat in a while. They have an incredible knack for asking exactly the right question that allows me to articulate something I haven't even been fully conscious of feeling until they ask it. I'd described yesterday's dress rehearsal as feeling like dragging the toboggan back uphill, after a nice easy hurtle downwards on the previous Friday. But our chat brought some really useful stuff to light. I'm much clearer now, for the first time, on the difference between the journey through the play taken by the character of Chris and the journey taken by Chris the actor. I think I had been wanting to make those things dovetail or at least synchronize somehow, but actually that's not the task, and to try and make it the task is to try and pre-resolve a series of tensions that actually belong in the room for an audience to sit with. I think, provided I'm at all conscious, and certainly if I'm feeling better primed than I was at the beginning of yesterday's slog, I will be starting tomorrow in quite a different mindset. It's daunting again, but in an exciting way.

Self, Tim and Andy in rehearsals for The Author
Photo: Karl James

This evening, not quite wanting to go the whole hog and see my first show of the year, I pottered up the hill to the Omni Vue and watched Toy Story 3. For the first three quarters I thoroughly enjoyed myself and admired it but couldn't quite see why everyone was telling me it was so superlatively amazing. And then it went up a gear into the last half hour and... well, it was superlatively amazing, and then some. Even in 2D (and, given my bad ear, mono), that final stretch was so totally enveloping it was impossible not to feel awed by the skill of its making, the height of its aspirations, and the depth of its caring. I walked back feeling completely different about the world and, more importantly, completely different about 1pm tomorrow (our next show).

Home to find a lovely gift waiting for me -- a Dr Seuss book from Andy, following a conversation a night or two ago; in fact, two lovely gifts -- Tim, it turns out, along with bloody everything else he's brilliant at, makes great soup. -- In fact, three lovely gifts, if I manage to actually get the early night I've been looking forward to. Big day tomorrow, and I want to step up. I want to wake up in stereo, and breathe, and have the breakfast of a champion (if not a wonderhorse), and step the heck up. And if that works, I'm going to treat myself to a film at the Cameo afterwards. I don't even care what it is. Might buy myself some new Vans too. You're only young once, right?

Thursday 5th: Wow. Wow. Tough day. Tough gig; tough, tough day.

I'm looking forward to the show -- our preview performance. I'm feeling primed and ready and excited to see what happens. We're in our seats already as the audience start to arrive and they feel chatty and lively and ready to meet us. We're sold out and suddenly I'm surrounded by over a hundred people, far more than I've worked with on this show before -- but their buzziness feels friendly and encouraging. The only thing that slightly unsettles me, talking to the pleasant American lady sitting to my left, is that she's been queueing alongside some people who have already read the script and have told her that she should "be very afraid". This is, for me, exactly the last thing I would want someone to come in to this room feeling -- having this sense of being clenched in anticipation, as if they'd just boarded the ghost train. No doubt when The Author starts being reviewed and talked about, the idea that it's, one way or another, 'quite a ride', an experience about which you might properly feel apprehensive, will become more current, and there's no point wishing it weren't so -- but I do. Even the requisite disclaimer in the brochure about "disturbing imagery" or whatever it says inevitably does a little of that, without at all being able to speak to why it takes the route it does, to what ends. It's hard to think of a less sensationalist play, a more morally alive and conscientious piece of art. These are attributes it's hard to explore in a Tweet, or in a Tweet-sized small-talk thought.

But if my neighbour is nervous, the room as a whole feels more productively excitable, and it's only when I start the opening lines of the play and hardly anyone notices that I begin to think we might be in trouble. Half way through that first paragraph, I'm still being drowned out by chatter. Even after some space has opened up, someone a couple of rows ahead turns round and looks at me as I'm delivering my lines, and says something like: "I bet he's in the play." -- Yup, you bet! I mean, fine, this is fine, we play with this, giving the audience this latitude and an apparent (not actual) lack of orientating signals, and it's good that they relish the taste of their own freedom. But right from the start we're also asking them to consider what that freedom is, to tune in to some subtle cues about the dimensions of that room to play. Three minutes into my opening monologue, I still haven't been able to shape things as I would normally want. I haven't been able to cool everybody down and help them settle. I get to the end of the section with some relief, but already some damage is done: the sense of having just played a live-action arcade game for five minutes is horrible. I've found myself slowing down and heavying up -- I heard a lower note in my voice than I've ever played this part with -- when I already know I should have lightened up and been more resolute in asking the audience to meet me where the play is, where it needs us to be in order for us all to do the work we came here to do.

The other thing that's been a bit unnerving is that somebody walks out within a couple of minutes of the play starting. We find out later that she was simply very uncomfortable with the way the piece is set up. Well, good on her for taking herself out of it, I suppose, and even in my very short association with the piece I've become used to people walking out, partly because the script explicitly makes provisions for it. But to lose someone so early is a pretty clear indicator of what it feels like to be in this room. I've never been in any kind of performance situation that's felt so hot. Not hot as in warm -- which it is, very -- but hot as in live. As if there are live electric cables dangling everywhere.

Once we're a little way further in, it feels as though things are calming down and we may yet be OK: the whole performance is suffering a bit from my failure to kick it off with the pace it needs, but we're getting through it. And then, as the piece itself starts to become more difficult, things get harder again. The third or fourth walk out is a woman who says, as she leaves: "I can't stand this. I think it's awful. So I'm going." It's always our policy to stop while people leave, so that there is some sense of acknowledgement and holding of those moments, no pretence of them not happening: and so that we can then all fold back into our engagement with the play: and I think this is a good thing. But as this woman leaves, and explains why -- and I should note that the point at which this happens suggests that what she says is a reflection on what's happening in the piece, not on the quality of it as work! -- it feels to me like her leaving in particular for some reason -- as the saying goes -- cuts the air. The room again feels very volatile. As we approach Tim's final monologue, which is demanding enough in the coolest of atmospheres, I'm really keyed-up. By this stage I'm kind of enjoying this electricity, but I'm also concerned for Tim. There will obviously be more walkouts but it's on my mind by now that that might be the least of it.

Well, so, there are indeed further walkouts -- the etiquette of pausing during them is becoming impossible to sustain. We lose maybe eight or ten more in the space of those two minutes. A woman in a wheelchair leaves, something I've naughtily joked about beforehand. ("Might be our first wheel-out.") One guy sings quite loudly during the fifteen seconds it takes him to leave. Somebody says afterwards it was "When You Wish Upon A Star" -- in which case, I didn't recognize it. Still, Tim keeps going, arriving eventually at a confidence of tone that seems incredible to me. Apart from anything else, I suppose, it's the only way we're ever going to get out of here, all of us, is if the play finishes in its due course.

And so, almost before we know it, we're all in the dressing room together, and it's as if all the electricity we've been absorbing for the last 75 minutes comes back out of us, in shakes and shakenness and tears and quiet. I'm almost ashamed of feeling, in that moment, along with my concern for everyone (and a longing to get out of the theatre and into the air) a little exhilarated. We've survived a difficult journey; but more than that, we've created a space in which a lot of real people have experienced real things with real impact. Chris's speech about how the theatre "is the safest place in the world" because "nothing really happens here" has been absolutely exposed for what it is, and that's exactly as it should be. I tell everyone I'm quite glad about what's just happened, because everyone did what they had to do. The people who were in it kept going, they told the story, they testified, they stood by the play; the people who came to see and hear it saw it and heard it, and those who couldn't stand it took themselves out of it, and those who wanted or needed to stay and see it through did just that. In a funny way, and notwithstanding how frustrated I was at how not-great I'd done in those testing circumstances, it had been a really affirmative experience. We sat in the Filmhouse bar across the road and came back to ourselves and were OK.

And then, a few hours later, and almost out of the blue, as I was strolling home from an aborted attempt to watch Inception at the Cameo -- gosh, watching a lot of other people walk out of your show does seem to make it easier to do yourself when you're the audience! -- suddenly I wasn't OK. My mind kept going back to the woman who walked out saying she couldn't stand it. There was a twinge in me of feeling that we, in the company, had done a good job of reassuring each other, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with each other and with the play; what, though, I wondered, was she doing right now, that woman? How was she doing with becoming OK with what she'd seen and heard that she felt she couldn't stand? Somebody said to Tim, and it's absolutely true, that, as with England (and, I'd say, with An Oak Tree too), you really can't tell what The Author is doing as a play, as an argument, until its very end, until you've been on the whole journey. Hopefully, those who find they can sit with it at least come into a relationship with it where they understand something of the intentions and the intelligence of it, where they can more clearly see the compassion of it. Those who leave -- and whose leaving we celebrate and endorse, though I hope we never start to wear it as a badge of honour and I worry a little that we could -- may never come to terms with it on its own terms, as it were. One person who walked out told the usher on the way out that they absolutely disagreed with the idea that theatre was violent; perhaps they'll never know that the play agrees with them, that the actors they're listening to do not agree with much of what they're saying.

Out of all of this arose, I guess, my first moment of doubt in relation to The Author. We spent an interesting few minutes towards the end of our rehearsal period in a discussion where we tried to clarify for our own benefit what we thought the play was about. Eventually (West Wing fans will be happy to know) I rejected the premise of the question, but before that, I said something about liberalism, and specifically about how the three characters in the play who speak throughout about their involvement with another play, a fictitious play by a fictitious Tim Crouch, are all striving to do good, to do the right thing, to do what they believe is in everyone's best interests: and yet each of them, in different ways, does appalling harm. And now, for the first time, I was starting to ask that question of our own work, given the care we'd taken earlier in the day to reaffirm the goodness of our own intentions. Suddenly I was thinking: I do not know -- I do not know for sure -- that The Author is not a harmful play. I know it's been written and directed by amazing and beautiful people in an atmosphere of love and deep concern. I know that for sure. I do not know for sure that The Author is not harmful to some people who see it -- the people who leave, the people who stay: but perhaps especially the people who leave, who unwittingly are not removing themselves from harm's way but to some degree are harming themselves by pulling away, almost as you might if you tried to walk away from a surgical procedure before it was finished if you found that the anaesthetic you'd been given hadn't quite taken and you couldn't stand the pain. (Let's hope nobody quotes that sentence out of context.) I mean, sure, even for those who walk away, there are a thousand shows they might see in Edinburgh which I would take to be far more harmful than The Author, plays and stand-up routines which treat glibly or sensationally the kind of topics we've been thinking through with such seriousness; plays and stand-up routines which ask nothing of their audience at all, which really do contain a kind of violence that no one will ever even notice because it's exactly the same colour as the background violence of our daily lives. This is true, this is so true. But it's not in itself exculpatory.

Later in the evening I talk to Jonny about all this, and as ever he brilliantly reframes the questions so that I can think more carefully around and between my doubts. He reminds me of stuff that in these moments of high drama I have somewhat forgotten. Most importantly, he listens to my doubt, my anxiety, which means he lets me listen to those things myself. Nothing is dispelled or resolved; I don't need it to be. I just need to recognize what I've felt, to know that it's there. The amazing thing about The Author is, it can contain all of this. If this doubt lingers, if it grows even, I can still without hesitation stand by the play and continue to work inside it because it does not seek to eliminate my doubt from within its own operations. More practically, I can think about what I can do, in those opening minutes in particular, to help people see the play we've made. Not see the fairground ride they might have heard rumours about, not see the first 45 minutes of a play that they think wants to hurt them: but see this play, in all its complexity; see it, and hear the questions it asks, and let all the doubt in the room be felt, and held, and cherished.

Now: on Inception, I suppose, just a quick word. Or two words, which come quickly to mind: viz.: unmitigated bobbins. Reports back from those who'd seen it already were lukewarm, and to begin with I couldn't make up my mind either. Give it time, I was thinking as I sat there with that sinking feeling, let it reveal what it's doing. But I don't think it really knows what it's doing, except being an advert that's trying to sell me something that it can't quite bring itself to name. The two real problems with it seem to me fundamental. Firstly, because it's all dreams-within-dreams, and the rules and syntax of dreaming vs. waking within the narrative are (perhaps necessarily) slippery and unstable, it's impossible to assess the stakes of any action within the film. What, you'll wake up? You'll die? You'll wake up dead? Oh, you'll wake up crotchety? In the bath? With your knees shot off. But not really. What on earth are you talking about, you big sillies? I have no idea what to care about. And this problem is compounded by the other major issue which is that I think Christopher Nolan is terrible with actors. It's extraordinary to be able to make high-end watchable actors like Joseph Gordon Levitt and Ellen Page feel totally inert. And poor Leo diCaprio has just been an out-and-out charisma sink for years now -- incredible for someone who was so compelling in his early career (to the extent that he could single-handedly propel misfires like The Basketball Diaries and Total Eclipse) to have become so thunkingly bland and depthless. I sort of wondered what Inception would be with one of Nolan's other collaborators at its centre, a Christian Bale or a Guy Pearce maybe: but actually I don't think it would make much difference. Nolan seems intrigued by male figures who are, for one reason or another, not all there. I don't think he wants these actors to put out. Maybe he wants the movie itself to be the entity that radiates charisma. Or maybe he really is as intellectually vigorous as people say and he distrusts charisma altogether (though it seems to me that charisma has always been part of the basic apparatus of cinema and it would be odd for a director who clearly wants to make films that are a lot like films and couldn't be anything else to disdain those qualities). But I have to say I don't buy the 'intellectual blockbuster' thing. Inception is smart in the way that freshman college students with a big weekend bag of weed who are attempting a late-night conversation on the meaning of life that they're constantly half-forgetting as they go along are smart. Which is to say, smart like most male movie critics, that kind of smart. Eventually I realised that all that was keeping me in my seat was a low but constant level of titillation about what might happen next, and that it was really very unlikely that I'd be all that interested or excited by it when it finally happened. So I walked out. Apparently that's very popular this season :)

I do want to say, though, wishing to end on a more positive note, that I sat in the Cameo bar before Inception with a cup of tea and looked through the Art Festival brochure, and oh boy oh boy oh boy, the picture being used to promote the Joan Mitchell exhibition at Inverleith House sent a jolt of energy through me that was strong enough to reanimate diCaprio and heat through a couple of Pop Tarts at the same time. It's a photo of the formidable-looking artist in front of a pretty impressive painting called Bridge, from 1957. Heretofore Mitchell has only been a name to me, vaguely connected in the WikiTangle of my brain with de Kooning. I cannot wait to see the exhibition, particularly at Inverleith House, one of my favourite galleries anywhere. It immediately made me want my black fountain pen and a plain notepad. It made me want to write and sketch and work harder and think more distinctly, and to surely and emphatically know the difference between dreaming and being awake.

Joan Mitchell in front of Bridge (1957)
Photo: Rudy Burckhardt

Friday 6th: Ah, much more like it. A quiet day in the run-up to our press performance. A great chat with Andy and Karl, about doubt, and about all the other things that doubt might sit in relation to. What I find continually astonishing -- I was already a big fan of this, but Karl and Andy are masters of it -- is the type of conversation that starts with the big ticket ethical and moral questions, and takes them to be imperatives (in other words, doesn't just name and sort of admire those questions and then move on, but really tries to think through and beyond them into penetrative action), and continues to zoom in, and without ever breaking the line that's taken us there it's able to end up with really specific notes about particular lines, particular words even. It's not quite that Derren Brown thing where elegance is already doing the work of an ethical prospectus; but rather that elegance (and precision) and ethical inquiry are very obviously different sections of the same cone. Saying it like that, it sounds kind of obvious, but the journey, in this company, is breathtaking: time and again it starts with that question of who we are to each other and what are we going to do about it, and it ends in the language of musical form, it ends in word order, and perhaps most excitingly it ends in the body, in breath: and this has required no acrobatics of faith, or, in Gillian Beer's reverberant phrase, "leaps of the prepared imagination": but just a series of 'and's, a chain of consequence. Even then I suppose it's obvious -- we know that we speak differently to those we love most; we breathe differently through our most intense experiences of desire; we take special care of the language we use when we're most of aware that the harm our inattention could do. But to rediscover the proof of those connections, day after day, is nonetheless revelatory. Yesterday's experience of doubt is in a way assuaged, in another way not. It's just part of the bigger dialogue, not obscured, but not so salient that I'll snag my sleeve on it. When we check in as a group this morning, I don't know how I feel about the show ahead, I feel a bit scared, a bit excited, a bit messy, a bit woolly, I don't know, I don't know. I'm just going to work, I say. We're all just going to work.

It's a much better show. I finally find some glimmer, at least, maybe more than a glimmer, of the lightness and gentleness that deserted me in the bearpit of yesterday's preview. The words are coming easier now, the multitasking is starting to feel less impossible. So much of this is about the offer that the audience makes to me, not the other way around. They are not hard work today. They help me hold open the place we're making.

In fact I think we might make it through without incident, and I'm even starting to anticipate what a relief that's going to feel like, what a breeze is going to blow through my head at that point, when a few minutes before the end an old chap in a wheelchair in the audience suddenly speaks up, launches in to a question which he puts directly to me. I'm not quite sure how to deal with it. He explains en passant that he's deaf, he's come out without his hearing aid, he hasn't heard anything anyone has said all the way through. His question is more or less unanswerable. I try to apply the policy we have for this kind of intervention: we won't cut anyone off, but equally we won't enter into a dialogue with them: we just want to be sure of enough of a connection with them, through our gaze, through touch if they're close enough (he isn't), that they know they've been heard, the room's heard what they had to say. This either doesn't transmit to him or it's not enough. "You aren't going to answer me!" he complains. "No I'm not," I say. "We're all just doing the script we've been given. Thank you for speaking, but I think we're just going to get on and do the end of the play." Not a great answer, but I'm in a funny place at this precise moment of the show: I don't feel I'm quite "playing the character" of Chris any more that I was maybe five minutes earlier; now I'm just sitting in the audience. I'm not that pleased with my reply, but he says he can't hear what I'm saying anyway, so the whole thing's a bit ridiculous. Afterwards I feel sort of deflated, almost as if we've snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Which is not to say that it's not fine; everything that's happened in this situation, we permit, we appear to encourage, we appear to ask for it. The play certainly isn't broken by it. I'm just a bit frustrated because it's hard for me to assess how I'm doing in relation to the arc of the piece as a whole if we never quite experience that arc. I'm happy for every other performance we do to be disrupted in one way or another if I can just have one that isn't, so I know how that feels. It'll happen, one day, presumably. And it'll probably be really boring. Post-show today, Tim says he quite misses all the walk-outs!

It's all fine. I wander dawdlingly home, stop in Waterstone's (I've had a book token in my pocket for weeks now that I'm finding it hard to spend), get home in time to enjoy a delicious curry that Nell's cooked, and to raise a glass to Alex, our lovely intern, who's leaving in the morning, and to Mark, our production manager, who we won't see again until Helsinki. (What a great sentence to be writing!) Andy and I have a great conversation about poetry, about mutual friends, about past work and work ahead. Suddenly out of nowhere it's time for bed. I'm missing Jonny a whole lot; he's offline, so I write him a poem and watch a bit of video of him at work, dressing, undressing, moving, dancing, coming to rest. The fundamental things apply / as time goes by.

Saturday 7th: A beautiful sleep, no alarm and no surprises. I wake up with my head and my heart more than a little bit in London, where Jonny's starting a new labouring job. I wish (and I dare say he wishes) he didn't have to do this: what a dumb waste of a beautiful artist. Of course there's nothing very special about that predicament -- who knows what else is being harboured in the workers on that building site, who knows what artistic or creative ambitions have lived inside some of those people, that have a far slimmer chance than Jonny's of ever being realised; what unwritten novels and unperformed songs and unplayed football matches are suppressed in the interior lives of people who'll never have the opportunity to speak in that way. Who knows how many genius musicians we'll never hear because, by dint of their circumstances, they'll never even pick up the instrument they'd excel at; it might never even cross their minds. I'm glad it crosses mine this morning: how much we lose, in clinging to a cruel system in which selling your labour in exchange for a roof over your head is about the best outcome you can hope for. How much we lose. I feel incredibly lucky this morning, I tell everyone around the kitchen table. Sometimes when people remind me how lucky I am, I bristle, I remind them how fucking hard I work, how hard it is to do the work I do, how I've made so much of my good luck by working really hard for it. Which is true, or not untrue. But today I'm keenly aware of how fortunate I am. I feel like the little sperm that made it to the egg. There's a responsibility that goes with that, and today I'm glad to feel the pressure of that responsibility.

For all that, the show is not great; it's fine, it's OK. I have a few new things I want to try out, and I crash into each of them, boink, bash, thwack. Even as I'm going along, I know it will be easier tomorrow -- unless, for reasons that I can't yet predict, it isn't -- but under laboratory conditions, it should be. I think. But it's a pretty good show, the pace in general is a bit better. There's another lengthy intervention from a member of the audience, considerably more mean-spirited than yesterday's, but so it goes: he hasn't cottoned on to the way the game works, and I doubt he'll have actually found much lasting satisfaction in behaving like a bully. For people who misjudge their role in the room, The Author must be a more discomfiting experience than, say, an inapt (or inept) heckle at a stand-up gig, where the comic's role would usually be to slap the heckler down or outwit him. With us, you are given space, and, as it were, enough rope. At any rate, he got a laugh, which is perhaps what he wanted; he continued to chunter away to himself throughout the rest of the show, and left a bit before the end. Well, there we are. That too is something that happens.

One curious feature of today's performance is that one or two people sitting near me in the audience recognized me, as my face was on the front page of The Times (and in the middle of a big photo inside). The show is certainly being talked about, and Tweeted about, and people are already arriving with a much more dimensionalised sense of what it might be like to be in the room with us. Partly I regret that, or I regret some aspects of it, but there's no denying it may make things a bit easier at least in terms of feeling that we have their implicit consent to perform a play that will ask a lot of them: whereas that difficult preview audience came in possibly quite unprepared for what they were about to receive.

We go for a meal after the show; Karl's treat. He's off in the morning, though he'll be back later in the month. I think I am a little bit in love with Karl, despite -- or, actually, probably, because of -- him being one of the most expansively heterosexual men I've ever met. He's one of the half dozen people I've met in my life who surprises me in pretty much every conversation I have with him. It's good that Tim, characteristically, is so diligent in making sure that people know how much Karl and Andy have contributed to the development of The Author. More than anyone they set the tone, and they brilliantly protect whatever space we're in, whether we're at the Traverse or in the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre or just kicking back in the Italian restaurant. I get serious pudding envy (trying to take my diabetes a bit more seriously at the moment) but otherwise it's a lovely, relaxed, talkative evening, and it's amazing to me how quickly the evening's performance leaves my bones.

Sunday 8th: For the first time in what feels like ages, I wake up in stereo, the ear-drops having done their doo. I have a bath -- ah, baths!, I forget! -- get dressed and walk into town with my iPod in, a treat after a few days without it (and with Yoko Ono's seminal Walk Piece just starting to become a little overfamiliar). On shuffle it serves up The Clash, The Books, The Reindeer Section, The Pretenders and Sybil on the way in, and Sam Amidon, James Brown, Professor Longhair, UB40 (before they were shit), The Muppets and Stevie Wonder on the way back; it strikes me that these occasions when my iPod shuffle function really delivers the goods are probably the closest I'll ever get to God actually reaching an arm down from the heavens and drawing a wax-crayon smile all over my stupid face.

On this blissfully sunny morning I'm going in to meet Naomi Dawson at the Fruitmarket Gallery for breakfast. (French toast with goat's cheese and maple syrup -- a bit naughty, but wowsome.) Naomi, who's designed -- very, very brilliantly -- a lot of my recent work including Speed Death, ...SISTERS and King Pelican -- is at the Traverse too, with Shared Experience's Speechless, about which I hear good things. Hope I'll get to see it. Naomi is frighteningly busy and in demand -- her work diary is one of the few that always makes me blanch -- so it's a delight to sit down and spend an hour catching up with her. I really feel like Naomi's sort of blossomed in the few years I've known her, her confidence (rightly) seems to grow and her easefulness in the face of huge demands is, and actually has always been, very admirable. I'm looking forward to working with her in Bath at the top of next year, and reuniting her with her (and our) longterm Old Mucker, the amazing lighting designer Anna Watson, after a period where they've been separately doing different projects.

After Naomi goes off to get her train, I stick around at the Gallery and have a look at the Martin Creed show. Creed is all over Edinburgh this year, with a dance work at the Traverse (haven't seen it yet) and an appearance at the Book Festival as well as this substantial show at the Fruitmarket. I have mixed feelings about Creed -- I have a lot of time (and a little love, even) for his band Owada and I've sometimes liked and often really hated his visual art and am largely glad it's in the world; I'm intrigued that he's made this ballet, but a bit kind of grumpy at what it seems to stand for in relation to, for example, the programme (and the programming generally) at the Traverse, and the rather weak dance programme in the International Festival this year. You can't help but think of all the highly talented and innovative choreographers who could really use the same level of exposure that's being bestowed on Creed.

Down Over Up -- his show at the Fruitmarket -- has a similar pattern to my thoughts on Creed in general: I like bits, and dislike other bits, dislike some bits really intensely; but I haven't seen this much of his work together before and I'm interested in what comes through as a result. I haven't really given much thought before to his giving each of his works a serial number: the first thus designated (retroactively) is Work No. 3: Yellow Painting, from 1986; the ballet piece at the Traverse is Ballet Work No. 1020. Songs, films, quasi-doodles, talks, paintings, theatre shows, all sit side by side in this rapidly burgeoning catalogue (the very nice Thames & Hudson Works gives a useful sense of this), each distinct only in its particular qualities rather than categorically differentiated by medium, form or occasion. Creed's many manifestations across the breadth of the festival are described similarly in the wall-text introduction to the show: that his different pieces and appearances might be considered as one big work with various elements to be moved between at will.

Creed is of a curious and not-uninteresting type: a formalist without rigour -- or, in Matthew Higgs's more eyecatching phrase, "a decidedly informal formalist". He is interested in really basic concepts to do with perception, scale, objecticity, orientation, phenomenology, taxonomy, deixis, counting, rhythm, the group; but his approach could hardly be less severe. It is sometimes generous, sometimes merely lax. The loveliest work in the show, for me, is a film in the large downstairs gallery, Work No. 670: Orson and Sparky (2007) [viewable here], which is a sort of a contrived record of the making of a film about the two eponymous dogs, one big one teeny, who genially trot across the screen, sometimes followed or preceded by Creed himself or an assistant, talking not-quite-distinctly about the process, about what to do, how to set things up. Because it's all filmed against a white background without any markers other than the figures that appear, move, disappear, our depth perception is a bit unreliable. Creed doesn't do much with this, he doesn't push it, he just lets it be. Big, small; near, far away -- it's not much more profound than Dougal and the cows in Father Ted, but there is -- perhaps because of the dogs, which have no interest in rigour (which would I suppose equal rectilinearity in this performance context) -- something very humane about the work: it can do both things, it can be about the spatial and the cognitive and be about loveable doggies at the same time.

Martin Creed, from Work no. 670: Orson and Sparky (2007)

Another piece I quite like, upstairs, is Work No. 590, from 2006, in which 39 A4 sheets of paper have each been completely 'coloured in' in black marker, and are hung in one long line across two walls. Minute variations in tone that are detectable from a distance become far more legible up close, where individual pen marks reveal themselves, and different procedures and strategies for filling up the field with ink can be read. The variation between the individual sheets is full of humanity -- I mean, humanness, but by extension humanity in a more binding sense. (Interesting that a recent London show paired this work by Creed with a series by Robert Ryman.) A similar, smaller array of sheets in different greens (Work No. 745) yields its detail more quickly and is consequently more successful straight away and less successful after a while.

Much of the work on the show is stacks of things: chairs, tables, boards, planks, marks, lines. Hard to get all that worked up about, either way -- but I don't think Martin Creed wants or needs me 'worked up' about his work. I guess he'd like that I accept it in the spirit that it accepts me. I suppose I don't mind doing that. What I do think is striking, however successful or not the individual pieces or the exhibition as a whole may feel to any individual viewer, is that there is not a scintilla of irony in any of this work, as far as I can tell. Creed is almost frighteningly sincere, and -- what a catchphrase this is becoming -- I think he is important because he dares us to take him seriously. His infamous Work No. 227: The lights going on and off -- not in the Fruitmarket show -- may be many things (or it may be very few things), but glib, perhaps surprisingly, isn't one of them. Creed's defining fixation is the question that is perhaps, for artists, more serious than any other: Why is, or why should there be, something rather than nothing? This existential binary informs a great deal of his thinking and inquiry, as in this key text, Work No. 141, which later becomes part of a song lyric:

from none
take one
add one
make none

Addition and subtraction might at one level be all we ever do in our whole lives, including being born at the start and dying at the end: and in that case, we might not unfairly characterise Creed's Edinburgh show, his work in general, as "something and nothing", but we should not imagine that by doing so we diminish it. I think on balance I emerge feeling quite enthusiastically supportive of Creed, on the strength of his body of work as a whole (and I'll certainly be interested to see the ballet piece in that light) and the interests that propel it, while not feeling massively excited about most of its individual instantiations.

A nice little bonus is that while I'm sitting reading the catalogue at the Gallery, I feel a gentle hand on my shoulder, and it's Andy Smith, who's just come from Creed's ballet. (He's getting some prep done in advance of Creed's 'Encounter' event with Tim C. at the Traverse tomorrow.) Andy's going tomorrow, back to Oslo, back to his family who I know he's been missing a lot, back to his a smith work, and back to the process of getting ready to return to England in the fall, to embark on a PhD. Nice to know we'll have him closer again so soon, but we'll keenly feel his absence when he leaves tomorrow. Over the past few weeks I've got wonderfully accustomed to feeling a gentle hand on my shoulder on a daily basis, and it being Andy. A beautiful person, an exemplary artist; that's tautologous, of course, but it bears spelling out, because it's rare. How often is it genuinely moving just to know someone, simply to feel them breathing along with you, sharing -- even from a distance -- the time of your life?

The afternoon rolls by in a lovely trundle through some long-outstanding work, and then it's time to head out for the evening performance. Having the late show today is a great pleasure: the whole day opens out and the air seems full of oxygen; plus, there's something nice about getting dressed up in the evening, as if to go out. I arrive at the theatre feeling clear of head and bouncy of demeanour, and for the first time, the show really feels like it's under our fingers. It's light and bright and dynamic; there's momentum when we want it, space when we want space; crucially, and perhaps because of how the room feels right from the start, there are no walkouts, no interruptions, everybody seems to understand what we're trying to do. We even take a couple of minutes off the running time. It's a shame Karl isn't here to enjoy it, but plenty of people are, including Martin Creed and, very excitingly for me, Ewen Bremner, one of my favourite actors in the universe.

A quick drink and a lovely chat afterwards with Jamie Wood, and a beautiful walk home, with my iPod continuing its good and faithful service. If we can just quickly acknowledge in passing that I've made a fuss about a lot of extremely cool and rarefied music of the most exalted obscurity over the years, may I confide that, turning on to Leith Walk on this beautiful clear midnight, with the wide streets and noble buildings of Edinburgh all around, "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues" by Elton John sounded fucking magnificent; and the segue out of that and into Sammy Davis Jr.'s recording of "I've Got To Be Me" (which turns out to be in the same key) had me blinking back tears.

The day ends in bread and cheese and Marmite and friends and stories and ribaldry and now with writing it all up into neat. Looking forward to bed, any second now. Good times. More to come.


theron said...

Dear Chris -- thank you for sharing this process -- it is heartwarming and terrifying and fascinating and gutwrenching to read about. It's such a risky, provocative, gentle, brave piece of work that you're part of, and I'm not sure I would ever want it to be easy for anyone involved -- but I guess that means it *should* always to be hard for you - alas, that's part of the deal. I'm struck, too, by your sympathy for the ones who walk out, who miss the end, given that your own character is also one of those (though not by choice).

I'm feeling quite poignantly the longing to be there this year, and so I'm relishing these stories, and rememering and imagining with you. Thank you.

x theron

Anonymous said...

Would love a bit more of this, when you have time.

Graves said...

Thank you for this - it is lovely to read thought and feeling so beautifully articulated. I envy you your work.