29 March 2010


Did you miss it? I certainly did.

Reading Karen Fricker’s round-up of “theatre’s special day” on the Guardian theatre blog yesterday, it struck me that something crucial had been missing from this celebration.

It was not Dame Judi Dench’s official address, no, that had been delivered with her usual stateswomanship. Nor was it the alternative version, the cyber-hi-five issued to Obamaesque political idealism by American playwright Lynn Nottage, whose message was accompanied by a leisurely theatre montage, and a soundtrack which makes as if someone just died. And it was not the baroque ode to theatre proffered by London Theatre Blog’s Andrew Eglinton in quasi-versified aphorisms and enigmatic film clipettes.

The Guardian came close when someone decided to give Fricker’s article the headline: What’s your World Theatre Day fantasy? This seemed too good a question to allow the Guardian subs to answer, especially when you see what they wrote, mistaking the word fantasy for the word favourite: ‘Whether it’s a night in the West End or tackling a Howard Barker epic…’ You can’t help but think they could have thought up a better dilemma.

Judi Dench’s suggestion that ‘in many ways every day should be considered a theatre day’ certainly makes sense coming from a jobbing actress, but for the rest of the world this must be considered a damaging consequence of the culture industry’s inexorable (execrable?) momentum. In London, where Lord-knows-how-many plays can be seen each night we are many worlds away from the festival of Dionysius, and the theatres of other ancient civilizations, in which the cultural significance of the experiece was reflected by its occasional position in the community. Is it barbarian to suggest that seeing theatre too often (every week? every month?) reduces it from the extra-special to the ultra-mundane?

It is exactly this distinction that is missing from the virtual birthday party, the irruption of that which makes theatre worth celebrating, I don’t know: imagination? hopefulness? disappointment? the pure joy and real sorrow of fantasy.

If this is theatre’s special day, you fully hope and expect she’ll get stroppy, throw a tantrum, scream until she turns blue, demand a larger and more calorific cake, more numerous and costly presents, throw someone out, invite too many unsuitable guests, get drunk on supermarket vodka, puke over an elderly relative, wreck her parent’s house, go missing and return after a not-inconsiderable emergency services search operation, and sob fat tears of contrition into a forgiving parent’s jersey.

Last week I went to the opening of the International Istanbul Theatre Festival and was struck (or, rather, bored) by the lack of evidence that the organisers recognised what it was that theatre is good at: a breaking with the everyday, creating a sense of occasion. A woman whose oratorial skills were nothing short of disastrous stood up in front of a screen with the logos of the festival’s sponsors printed on it and read out the entire listings of the festival, the details of which we all had on printed handouts. The mere fact of ostentatiously giving a significant sum of money to a worthy arts cause does not in itself enough, there needs to be a sense that theatre is not just a poor cousin, but an important part of the family. In the same way, it doesn’t seem too much to expect that the UNESCO-sponsored World Theatre Day do something more than simply broadcast a indirect call for world-piece under the guise of a vaguely-worded appreciation of theatre.

We need to stop using the same old words and start saying things which make it clear we mean them. Unsurprisingly, Samuel Beckett knew this: ‘to speak of happiness one hesitates those awful syllables first asparagus burst abscess’. Which syllables for us now?


It all takes place, of course, in the smoldering ruins of The Globe – restored once more to the archeologists of the future in an all-too-historically-faithful revival of ALL IS TRUE.

The rivers of the world have been dredged, Kurt Schwitters has been exhumed for one last merzbau, Sir Nicholas Serota is pasting the walls with luggage labels and cigarette cartons and free newspapers. Shocked dolphins, the figureheads of shipwrecks, decommissioned nuclear warheads and rare whales all orbit in a cosmological mechanic aquarium, and it drips brine on your sister’s hair.

The audience are all suspended from the ceiling on swings of blue and orange rope and driftwood, which rise and fall and catapault someone into the nightsky: you hear them enter the Thames, and you see their occasional beaming betowelled reentrances, waving to you, waving to their family and friends.

It’s all in a language you cannot speak but do understand: it is spoken in phrases repeated in refrains, and written in the movements of one hundred bodies: the actors are all dancers and the musicians are all dancers and the dancers are all your past lovers and you find it is the story of your life you’ve always lived in your head, heard and seen for the first time.

Scarab beetles crawl in the embers, owls are nesting in the balconies, and the chef from an Ethiopian restaurant throws spices into the fire, spices which send your mother to sleep, and bring her long-forgotten bittersweet dreams until she falls off her swing and Kevin Spacey kindly leads her out of the auditorium.

The South Bank’s human statues have quietly followed you in and now run along the charred roofs their naked bodies daubed in thick paint all the colours of the world flags, juggling candles, scattering coppers, handfuls of almonds, raining playing cards flutter past your head.

The girls who followed you along the riverside and disappeared when you gave them coins now parade through the ashes, their ashen skin, the dots incised in their high cheeks, their wrackish rhythms, their infant rhythms, their shrieking gypsy song.

Some hungry Community Support have followed the girls in, but they have laid down their batons, and are being taught to dance, their radios echo angrily unanswered across the arena.

A tribe of children from the local school ride in on animals liberated from the local zoo, dismount and execute a dozen proud foxtrots on the splintered stage.

A troupe of deaf choreographers carry placards which say THUS I PARTICIPATE IN LIFE and other, cleverer things and someone has told them to scream, in beautiful disunion: I love you, I love you, you can never disappoint me.

A thousand men and women are queueing up outside with TVs under their arms – it has been bring your TV to work day but they are all redundant – and break ranks to surge inside and haul their TVs onto the dying fire and the mutinying crew of Doctor Who have dragged a stolen Tardis from the BBC studios, strip it to kindling and feed the fire, which now grows greedy with renewed intent.

Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen perform an increasingly frantic fire safety drill, piggybacking thrilled air stewardesses whose hopping scalded feet scratch their august autographs into the glowing cinders.

Someone from the BBC crew is giving the schoolchildren a lesson in elementary electronics dissecting the Community Support radios.

A sewage pipe bursts beneath the stage and riverwater is sucked back and sent high into the air, dousing your feet, fish falling flipping on the embers. Seagulls circle. The fire seethes.

The girls and the Community Support, the chef and the statues and the children and the BBC crew, Sir Nicholas Serta and Kurt Schwitters and Kevin Spacey, the actors and dancers and musicians gather and reach out their arms to receive the water, wash themselves and each other.

You don't know any of your neighbors, infact you've never seen anyone like them, but in the constant intervals you just get chatting, you love the way they’ve dyed their hair, the pieces of jewellery they wear, and when dawn breaks you go for dinner in a little place nearby that makes faraway food taste homemade and someone plays the accordion improbably well and you’re all like What a fantastic day it’s been and We should do this again and though you don't live anywhere near one another you share a cab home and the driver discourses prettily on the national deficit and the fare comes to less than you thought because you realise you share an childhood obsession in John Hughes movies and one of you invites the other on some unrehearsed pretext back to a small but welcoming flat, with posters of great art works on the wall, and you fall exhausted onto a single bed where one of you cries and is held in the other’s arms. You promise you’ll see each other soon, though you both know that you won’t, and you promise never, ever to forget.

16 March 2010

Who You Aren't

What It Was

Last night, Monday 15th March 2010, Chris Goode's one-off work 'Who You Are' set in Miroslaw Balka's How It Is in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern.
What might be called a 45-minute sound installation around Goode's response to the space and his preparatory thoughts on the audience.


Where I'm At

Somewhere - - disappointed.

After a lot of walking, talking, thinking, strolling, rehearsing lately, I've been thinking about journeying and audiences. About thinking walking - about thinking as walking, a movement, but also about clearings, about Heidegger and revealing, dwelling, technique as techne, letting appear... Feeling also other journeys through acting work involving Viewpoints, Grotowski plastiques and the notion of self-penetration: acting as a deepening and stripping away - a technique of unravelling, of movement into the self, transforming the space of the body that is already there - the body as another Heideggerian clearing, showing us its boundaries and springing away from them.
Continuing to think about journeying last night, it strikes me that Who You Are did not travel into the deep corners, or rather, rejected a collective, metaphysical expedition through the vastness of Balka's great black hole. Definitely an in-stall-ation not an ex-plor-ation.


Where It Was

Still walking-thinking a bit about Heidegger and audience journeys and self-penetration - surely the point of the exhibit is that it isn't a black box...it's actually quite light. It does transform and transmogrify its own distances; revealing unexpected qualities.
It's quite soft in places, hard and cold in others. The walls are deliberately different textures from the floor: they are invisible, glimpsed only in absence, whereas the floors give light, glow grey in patches, moulded by the shadows or shapes of others.


What It Wasn't

Indeed, having a cast of silhouettes sharing the space does not mean that we are 'deprived' of sight, or that our attention to sound is vastly heightened, as the piece ironically notes during one 'scene' in which Goode and the familiarly parodic Tate 'Visitor Experiences' manager discuss why nudity is inappropriate 'in the dark' of How It Is.

Deliberately or no, it was quite difficult to hear anything with the balance of the speakers.
What's more, the sense that really needed to be arrested was touch....sitting against the almost furry soft-brushed suedeness of the back wall of the piece made me increasingly aware of how I would like to be made more aware of my own body and its relation to the constructions around it - other skeletons and bags. Telling us doesn't really do the same job.


If It Weren't -

Another sense - that the piece did not feel intricately thought through - and at times it seemed to fall prey to a technique which too literally takes techne as letting appear and still prioritises the gaze - using nakedness (physical or emotional) as a shield.
After the dialogue with the 'Visitor Experiences' manager, its clear-cut play with the dark space and the imagination, bodies in the dark and the audience's implantation of sexual imagery amidst suggestive dialogue, Goode moved to a dimly-lit lectern on the edge of the open-end of the box, and began a self-interrupting torrent of personal testimony, biography, snatched memory.
The 'confessional', the foregrounding of the artist's honesty (an ironic thing to need foreground...), outpouring of personal detail, becomes a defensive shield. It protects the piece from examining a difference type of naked vulnerability, which is that of the audience and the relationship between performer and audience. It closes the gap between audience and performer, between audience member and audience member, by pretending there is no gap - no connection, just two sets of people in totally different worlds.
Almost antagonistic. Or rather, passive aggressive.

So such nakedness, the self revelation which could not feel like a revelation, instead presents, at poorly chosen junctures, a retiring back into the self - an almost-sentimental 'show' of passion and significance, whose show nearly succeeds in deflecting attention away from the emptiness behind it.
A closing of the gap between audience and performer - because that gap might be a door.
And the performer decides to shut it.
To not admit.
To think there is no light seeping in under the cracks.
When there is always light and shape in shadows.


How We Are

It felt, then, that such a performance carried some un-considered assumptions about the audience and the dark.

Firstly, in shrouding the audience in mysterious impersonality, in reading us randomly-generated names of people who might (not) be watching in America, in telling us that we are scary, that he knows nothing about us, Goode missed out on a glimpse, a genuine connection, with the peculiar type of darkness that the audience experiences.

Yes we might all be strangers to you (though several of us are not) - but are we strangers to each other? Don't we often see familiar faces, or go to the theatre with a friend, a lover, a family member, a colleague? Aren't I here with several people I know - some I knew were coming, others who I happily bumped into?

Isn't the point that this darkness, this audience shroud, is not equalising or even totalising. Isn't it sort of suspending? Not like the shut door, not a deadening or rejection, not a push into nothingness: rather it is a shifting encounter within a fixed time and fixed space. We become aware that maybe we can't move - or we shouldn't move - but we want to. We might want some water but we can't really open our bag in the dark - can't make that noise.

Doesn't this suspension of chronological time, ticking life, reveal something to us? Does it not let appear certain relations, feelings, characteristics, boredoms, excitements? Sitting in the suspended dark with a friend can often make you more acutely aware of each other.
Maybe that someone keeps looking at you to check your reaction, or maybe you become nervously aware of your own position; maybe your own relation is suspended, allowed to play out or reveal itself in a new form. Perhaps this is just How I Am but this must then be a part of How We Are...

I couldn't feel much engagement with this real intimacy of the audience; the shape of the dark, the contours, much like the architectural fascination we find in In Praise of Shadows.
More than anything, this felt under-done, made resoundingly timid by the grandness of the space it took place in, a space whose work with experientiality should not be competed with but complemented and confronted, expanded: exposed, perhaps, with a flash of light, made actually, temporarily, vulnerable and naked, intimate and imposing. They very grinning photo Goode describes on his first visit to the box, amidst the snapping teenagers.


Who It May

It strikes me that maybe sometimes Chris Goode is afraid of the audience...that he turns it into a thing, an 'enigma' and this is somehow scary - and so, to avoid getting entwined in this shadowy presence, it is safer to be almost aggressively, pre-emptively naked himself - to stop anyone else doing so.

But if we start to expect that 'nakedness' (in whatever form) from a piece of theatre, it ceases to be nakedness and starts to become a piece of artistic vocabulary: the dreaded nudity that Goode so deftly deconstructs in The Forest and the Field.


Who I Are

But what shape has a shadow got? How much of performance is there for the performer - how much is there for the audience? What happens if these figures become embodied in the same person? How can performance be intimate without being private? Or particular without being personal? Should theatre play a therapeutic role?
Is that Who We Are? or Who You Are when I go to the theatre. Someone around me who might make me better.

Who is sick.

Who is curing.

Who You Are made me feel oddly impersonal, indifferent to two things in particular:
1) to the audience; even sitting between two friends I felt only myself without pushing further towards my own experience or into the experiences of my two friends either side of me;
2) to the space. I felt it could have taken place anywhere; what's more, it would have been more effective in a busy train station or underneath a bridge with a handjob, anecdotally.

Did it try to fit neatly into the dark. Did it not fit. Was it not dark?

Are we not in the dark.

Is that it?