26 July 2011

The office: a journey in percussion

The internet has a worming effect on your body and mind, burrowing in between them and creating gaps or channels where you thought there was harmony. Your mind moves at a million miles an hour; it tries to make the body void and null. Nowhere have I more acutely felt this than in my part time job with a company which exists solely to play Google, and make its clients more prominent in cyberspace.

Sitting down and staring at one thing for such a long period of time is unnatural. The dull thrum of your nerves pulsing into the swivel chair, the self-prohibited desire to get up and run around or at least laugh at loud a lot, forms a kind of bass-kick somewhere in your body. Fingers absentmindedly flicker and snap. Mouths open and close silently. The pace and length of the strides from the kitchen to the desk to the toilet quicken and slacken.

Far from this activity dulling or diminishing the body's natural energy - it simply short circuits it. The energy and movement which might power a human body is harnessed to one spot, given a very short leash, and HAS to be rechannelled - into spasmodic eructations on your phone, trips to the toilet, another cup of tea. The office becomes a music and a dance. A duet between body and computer, a dialogue of energy between collective and individual; a flurry of tap-tap-tapping keys and click-click-clicking heels, with the snare and slide of a chair across the carpet.

This short-circuiting of my energy usually leads me, with that internet conditioned click-it-and-see impulse, to YouTube, and music. Whilst I previously thought that my listening choices were a little freedom amidst the invisible office straitjacket, I've realised that music does more than that for me.

I tend to listen to similar songs when I'm working; and I think that the music I choose does what my body wishes it was doing. The music is movement - in sound rather than action. It dances for me, for all of us and our short-circuited energy. I wonder whether the songs I choose chart this daily journey, of body and mind slowly splitting, admitting (or not) to a common beat and re-emerging in time for the end of the day.

A typical morning starts somewhere like here. There's a sense of unity, or openness. Words and rhythm are in a half-blended haze, something optimistic and straight forward, the heat and awareness of the outside enters the office and rules it for the first half an hour.

Then that soulful sunniness sits down, settles and things become more insistent - that beat becomes more regulated, just as the office has clicked into gear and is clap clap clapping through. Meanwhile, the individual, like the voice of Pharoahe, kicks away from that rhythm, unconsciously or not. The harmony of the first half hour dissipates as body and mind split.

And then the mind kind of takes over. The beat quietens down as the office subdues, caffeine buzzes trickle away, and like an unstoppable stream, the random synapses of the over-stimulated mind kicks in, clicking between two screens, or 23 open tabs across 4 windows, emails, scorecards, Google results. A collection of divergent references and unfinished thoughts, like Def here skipping from disco to techno to soul and back. (This video reminds me of an internet-era Beckett's Not I: a disembodied mouth that can't do anything but let the thoughts pour out unstoppably, constantly distracted and shifting. The rhythm, the chaotic monotony of being online.)

But inevitably, this surge fades away into a dulled almost-silence, just the hums of the piano (or, in my world offline, the computers). Confronted with the mind at a dead-end, and a body switching off. At this point, an attempt to jump out of the lull by imagining or identifying yourself with a class, a drama, or a struggle, that will make you feel authentically real, or turn the dull feeling into an identifiable story. But this is self-dramatizing and little more.

It's after lunch and there's still several hours to go. Blood pumps around the stomach and the office is slumped, echoes of the morning (like Burial's traces of the night before) reverberating gently and muggily around the desks. That post-eating haze, as workers finally all arrive back from their breaks, begins to wear off and the first beats of the afternoon settle in. A metronomic pulse overlayed with tiny offshoots and tributaries, as some sink further into the monotony, and others pick up and propel themselves into meetings or tea breaks.

By this point, the montony has become kind of fun. So consistent and strong that you can build off it. My wayward mind has started finding ways to do what I like without paying too much attention to the work I have to complete. I begin to care less about the overall thrum and more about how I can fit new rhythms and ideas into that steadiness, without being caught out.

And by this point, we're less than an hour before the end of the day, and I can feel it. I can't quite pay attention to the beat of the overall office anymore, because a fidgety feeling takes over, itching in and around, resisting any steady rhythm. I go get a glass of water. I sit up, I sit down. I have a chat with a colleague. Everyone begins to splinter, recovering tiny gestures, motifs, and overlaying them on the general office monotony.

This persists, revs, and releases itself, deliriously scattershot onto the streets outside, meeting a thousand others, and cycling home.

25 July 2011

Missives from Months Lost: The Government Inspector

This was on at the Young Vic in June, and to be honest, I haven't thought about it much since, so I can't imagine typing up my original scribblings will be much surprise.

A Study in Deference
'in defence of deference'

Typified by its unwillingness to probe or question its (undeniable) stars. Julian Barratt, poor man, who looked desperate to be given something other to do than lope around stage and pump his fingers into his palm whilst trying to get his lines out as quickly as possible without forgetting them, is a wonderful actor wasted. It felt like he came to this looking for a challenge and a chance to explore a more body-ful way of performing not used in the facical tics and wonderful timing of his TV work - and was instead greeted with a cynical campagin on the YV's part to sell, at all costs, this show as 'The Mighty Boosh''s Julian Barratt. Just likethe poster.

(The audience was certainly comprised of people in their mid 20s, mostly in suits, who seemed to be waiting for subtle Boosh references and had perhaps been big fans at uni when the show first came out.)

It felt like he'd been directed to be Howard Moon and nothing else. You saw glimpses of him leaping out of that oddly ill-fitting demeanour (go with your instincts, Julian! You're right! Acting for TV isn't what you want to do on stage! Don't listen to or worryn about what the director tells you!) - at the very end a physical and vocal spasm as the realisation of the Mayor's mistake dawns on him. Like a jolt of electrivity had been shot through him, Barratt fitted and convulsed, the words coming out so much easier and truer because he wasn't thinking about them. He was doing.
He doesn't strike me as a prima donna, so it's curious that the direciton showed such deference to him + his career - ultimately suggesting a lack of faith. "Just do what you normally do, Julian" stops being a mark of respect 9even sycophancy) and becomes if unchecked, a tool of fear/ A director scared to push a performer and a performer suddenly scared that s/he can't do anything else. Then the words become terrifying, tangible: like the ghost-train neon INCOGNITO which flitted around the walls of the mayor's home.
Kyle Soller meanwhile had the life of 6 people flowing through his wiry frame. I could not take my eyes off him - neither could the audience nor the rest of the cast.
I ddin't completely understand the mish-mash design either - at once retro then clashingly futuristic, or rahter, very 'nowness', with its cut-and-paste references and mingling of aesthetics which ultimately left it feeling oddly styleless...?

Really, I thought it would be less boring.
And more funny.

It seemed that the mayor's anxiety - so potent in the play - had influenced the rest of the skittish productions; with the exception of the bottle rocket 'Government Inspector' - an enigma in the cast and an enigmatic expception to the other largely strained performances.

Kyle Soller, on the otherhand, was the reason for not leaving at the interval. He was mesmeric, and had the effect of a sports star or a dancer at his or her best, who you simply watched open-jawed with their virtuosity. His energy was the kind that, for two hours, makes you fall completely in love, forgiving everything else around you.

Missives from Months Lost: The Passion in Port Talbot

Back in April, National Theatre Wales, a company that really explores and expands old binary ideas of what a 'national' theatre is, with a real openness and curiosity about how Wales as a country and the company as a group of artists can work together, finished up its inaugural year with The Passion in Port Talbot, a 3 day festival, sort-of-but-not-quite recreating elements of the Passion in this South Wales town by the sea.

I had tickets for the opening day - Friday 22nd April - and then ended up coming back the next two days as well (though I missed bits and pieces.)
Anyway, this is from the floor of Aberafan Shopping Centre on the Saturday 23rd, in a break between 'scenes'.

What is brilliant is the bodies of the people - the social body - the polis

First day, first performance: nervous, shuffling and obedient
by Saturday 3.44pm they're sitting on the floor of the shopping centre - a real accidentally -on-purpose sit-in relaxed and non-conformist in a way that they won't even notice
maybe they do notice maybe - maybe their feet and their torsos and shoulders feel different - perceptibly to me imperceptible to them or vice versa who knows
but from where (and how) I stand, this event is relocating and rearticulating the crooked social body, giving different and new flight to a mangled group of people who are not in themselves broken or mangled at all, but impinged upon - by the overpass, by the steelworks, by economic recession, by an undeserved reputation
but a body will fly again will pick itself up - it does not need to reconstitute BECAUSE IT IS NOT BROKEN IT IS NOT FRAGMENTED NO
it is squashed and all it needs to do is stretch once more; stop crouching, lift the head and elognate the spine, raise the head a little closer to the blue skies, relasing the lungs and the diaphragm letting the fresh(ish) air in and in this new - yet age-old - stance, TAKE A STAND, make itself stand up and sing unstoppable but also inevitable

it isn't about a lack or an abolition of control it is about a recolation
[ A RELOCATION where there is usually DIS-LOCATION

putting our head back on the shoulders
breathing in
not forcing up and out but by nature
being empowered rather than experiencing power as a bitter gust that rallies under the doors and through the pillared corridors created by the overpass -
taking breath - inspiration - a movement of air from within + without the body itself, chemically, naturally connecting inside + out; shared + minutely individual
not just the hot blasts of gorgeous wind on Aberavon beach, nor the whistling whirs of the M4 traffic but air (dirty and clean) that passes through the many membraned insides of the flesh+blood human beings who live amidst the concrete + sea somewhere between industry & nature
not bi-partisan, not pro-mountain, anti-M4, not pro-sea, anti-steelworks, but somewhere, something uniting the two, something that acknolwedges history + economy's impositions & recognise that these people & this nature has absorbed these things - suffered but SURVIVED: a regenerative, mournful but maybe maybe changing process, generous process which industry cannot perform no
NATURE, human nature, can & does suffer these impositions: it is generous (sometimes too generous) and quiet (sometimes too quiet) in ceding a place to all these inventions

industry in its arrogance imagines it has won. imagines it dominates the landscape. Imagines that the story is its own. But one look at the beach at Aberafan tells you different. This is Nature's story - whether a tragedy or a comedy, or something unheard of before, this is not about industry. Industry does not win. Industry is incoporated. It is a theme, perhaps, a well-realised motif.
But Nature is all: subject, object, within + without, wheezing as well as singing, patching itself up even whilst it is being torn apart.
This is a passion of mine.
It's pretty clear that the 'story' being written about isn't the narrative of the piece of theatre, but the impulse of the event itself. The story of the people of Port Talbot. The story of Nature and Industry battling over human beings' lives.

I remember a sudden, massive response to the feeling, of being one of and with the people and the history of the town in some ways - and perhaps surprise at experiencing that feeling. Of great pride and faith and connection to the people and the landscape, and being part of that somehow, not just as an audience member, but as someone born and brought up down the road, who went to the town's Lido a few times, but mostly drove over it, as most do, to get to Swansea, or back home to the Vale.

I could never write any kind of 'review' of the show. That said, I thought Lyn Gardner did a non-job of it here - especially to give it 5* then give little more than a summary of what happened. As a piece of theatre - a dramaturgical whole - it didn't make a whole lot of sense.

And if I judged it as a cohesive show then I don't think it would stand up so well. But then it took place across so many platforms, and involved so many times and places that it was not possible to see everything. And certain elements were simply interactions with other people, with Port Talbot community groups and so on. There were moments of great beauty and well-crafted poise - Owen Sheer's writing for the Llewellyn Street passage was stunning, as ghosts of the town, people unhoused by the building of the overpass, emerged from the pillars of the M4 to rebuild, by imagination and voice, the homes they once knew.

Yet for the most part, we were running around in the hope that something would become clear that never quite did. The traditional passion stuff all happened - but this didn't quite weave into what the narrative was trying to do (so we have a slightly inexplicable 'punishment' of an amnesiac Teacher who refuses to take responsibility for being involved in a uprising in the town - crucifixion!). Really, Port Talbot was Christ in this story, and my only wish was that this had been more fully committed to and explored in fabric of the piece. Still, as an event, a community gathering, it was second to none. And perhaps even trying to judge it, or understand it, as some kind of narrative whole or dramaturgical pattern, is ridiculous when considering thousands of people. In many ways it was a patchwork - a reflection of the different (and soemtimes conflicting) expectations of what the participants were making - of theatre, song, spectacular, promenade, fete, funeral, film. Its power was what it did to and for people.
A rightful celebration.

20 July 2011

Missives from Months Lost: Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde

My brother was staying the night I saw this. June 3rd 2011. I hadn't seen him for ages and I knew he was at home with wine and food and friends, so my mind wasn't on this show. Plus I'd had a really good day of workshops with a group of TDA alumni, and I just wanted a beer in the sun.

The Sadlers Wells website says:

Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde! is about the search for love and the human form. Using humour to tackle taboo subjects, it features 20 dancers, naked both literally and figuratively. A narrator leads the audience on a journey through their emotions as the performers leap with a primal urgency, or lie crumpled and defeated on the ground, before climaxing in a breathtakingly beautiful and moving finale.

I failed to make it that far -I made to an hour and twenty minutes then had to leave. As soon as I got on the bus I started scribbling -

So little to do with either ferocity, brutality or tenderness that perhaps that's what kept the audience: there must be something coming, there must be something.
It hated men and it hated women. And it seemed to hate itself but not in any way that might have illuminated or changed our attitudes or lives. Not at all.
Not even the sensational or the sensationalist. It made me feel scared of sex and intimacy and other people. It worried - no it confirmed, in those 80 minutes - a (ridiculous and unfeeling) notion that human beings just want to hurt each other or consume everything in one gulp. There was no link, no real judgement or new message or revelation about how humans are or why humans are the way they are. Even a disrespect of the dancers, their faith and their bodies. Because we never saw the bodies being honest or open


but never nakedness. Not rawness. Not a truth. Not one truth or exposure.

The opening five minutes very promising - an impassioned and desperate attempt to breach an impasse - the woman reaching and grabbing more and more for the other, seeking tenderness. The first man's passivity = symptomatic of the whole show. Its complete lack of empathy, compassion or the HUMAN. As he turned his back on this heaving woman's body so too the entire piece turned its back on us and on 'tendresse', never to make any link between why a disconnect between audience and performer, lover and lover, consumer and product MIGHT ACTUALLY BE WORTH DANCING ABOUT. it made life feel redundant.


why does a show like this gain so much press? because the idea of parading nudity as an 'idea' is so totally unexamined by a bodydead/braindead society and media that we give it the kind of credence and authority it NEVER MERITS NOR WORKS FOR.
We've been flipped over and fisted into submissions, not penetrated by anthing resembling something reproducutive something that might generate ideas, seeds, new connections.

A lot of that writing is a bit cringy and extreme, in retrospect. But it did manage to hit a really tender nerve, not of outrage at nudity (yawn) but outrage at how it treated people. I think it's the only show I can remember having left before the finish. It also sounds like the angriest I've been in a while. I remember bubbling and boiling on the bus.

What was the most irritating was the feeling of exploitation. For a brief second I regretted leaving, thinking that perhaps the finale was a worthwhile tonic. But then emerging onto the street, several others had already given up and were having cigarettes outside, with haunted and exhausted looks. They weren't going back either; what came before was enough to make it beyond redemption. Jenny Gilbert's review in the Independent:

The tone darkens markedly after the cast put their clothes back on. In a crude steal from Pina Bausch the men shout "Frappe-moi!" and hit themselves hard in the face, over and over. In another sequence, Sabrina is offered the choice between a man and a chocolate cake. She takes off her knickers and goes for the cake.

I remember that bit. Just before I tipped over the edge. And whilst very often the intense anger I feel watching a show gives way to a more sustained realisation after I leave, I still think the same thing about Un peu de tendresse. I just feel a lot less. And what did the haunted smokers and I miss when we left? Not much, it seems:
Despite the plea implicit in its title, there is a good deal more bordel than tendresse in this long and often tediously barbaric show. Only in the final minutes does peace descend, as the 24 dancers, naked once more (but who really cares?) skid silently about the wet stage surface like seals at play, finally curling up as happy couples.

Missives from Months Lost

At the risk of suggesting that I spend all of my time at Sadlers Wells, I've decided to publish a few missives from months gone by.

It's an experiment in blogging. I'm curious to see what something retrospective does in a realm as present-and-future-tense as cyberspace.

We'll see.

I tend to see a lot of things, or have a lot of thoughts which are scribbled down passionately, then by the time they arrive on a computer screen, an email inbox, an article, they've been tailored and made cohesive - or reductive. With a mixture of bravery and stupidity, I want to see my scribblings word for word alongside my typed thoughts today. Less writing in the past, more putting two presents together.

16 July 2011

hyperbole, literally: football pundits and political mother

I have always been prone to exaggeration.

When I was younger, I loved hyperbole. Not in an adolescent ‘I hate my life’ way (I didn’t), but more in a ‘what can language do’ way. Even before my oestrogen levels took a hike, I had a tendency to get a bit passionate in conversation, and swing between outright worship or mistrustful indignation and anger. It got other people to react and it was fun to see what language could do.

But lately, in conversation, I've noticed another, more generalised use of hyperbole. I use it the same way I rub invisible bits of dirt in the corner of my eye: to put painful, laborious emphasis on something that wasn't there in the first place.

It’s a tendency I dislike in others and myself - ‘it was the worst night of my life’ about a fairly routine Friday evening; 'I'm dying here' on a slightly fatigued Monday morning in the office. Being 'ok' is not enough, we have to be 'great' or 'on the edge'. A linguistic muddle where the mundane has become the startlingly extreme.

On the Guardian's football homepage this weekend, there was this article on a similar phenomenon: the desperately hyperbolic football punditry of Jamie Redknapp and his categorisation of 'top top top top' players.

(Jamie Redknapp this is not personal; you were an affable Liverpool captain and pretty good player, but it is difficult impossible to understand your habit of making terrible adverts and inability to buy a pair of trousers that fit...just one size up, and you’ll be able to stay seated without wincing. Imagine the freedom!)

'top top top top' is an example of hyperbole that remains mostly within the football punditry world; a world without a clear, common consensus by which to judge quality. But what about Jamie's love of 'literally'? Redknapp uses it all the time. The video link in the previous sentence is just one case in point. Commenting on the difficulty of defending against the Gunners in 2009, tells us- "you literally have to have your head on a swivel as a defender".

Aside from the fact that now it’s possible to survive the Arsenal defence with severe whiplash, there’s something more troubling – and recognisable - going on with Jamie’s turn of phrase.

‘literally’ here makes the real unreal, spinning us into a realm where footballers, like owl-ish marionettes, are all swivelling their heads in contentment to stop Cesc Fabregas. Instead of taking us to the concrete, it refers to some imagined, virtual playground of sorry metaphors that we're all assumed to have in common.

And that’s the scary thing. Jamie's punditry is symptomatic of a widespread anxiety of communication. We use ‘literally’ all the time, without even hearing it, to say things we don’t – can’t - think or feel.

‘I was literally on fire’

‘It was a nightmare....literally.’

We even use it to emphasise things we would do –

‘I literally want to take all my clothes off.’

- but we'll never do them, of course, because we can just say it really, really, like, strongly...

The result isn’t just a weird hiccup of meaning. It's a crisis: a rift in social communication and subjective experience.

The tendency to say we 'love' things when we don't, or describe anything as the 'most x experience of my entire life' masks an insecurity about how we experience, understand and communicate our feelings. They're flourishes of social storytelling which happens most acutely with groups of three or more people. We feel some invisible pressure to present ourselves, and our lives, as sensational.

But what does that mean for those big, sensational experiences when a hyperbolic, ‘unreal’ figure of speech, would usually have been used. Linguistic hyperbole, a collection of wildly exaggerated empty phrases, is used by me, and the Sky Sports pundits, and lots of our friends, to refer to nothing but other figures of speech. How can we get closer to the truth when the adverbs denoting 'the real' or the true have been hijacked? Can we understand how we feel if we can’t rightly express it?

The first time I saw Hofesh Shechter's Political Mother, on July 15th 2010, I emerged from the auditorium flapping and crunching and convulsing inside (I did convulse outside too- in the toilet though; Sadlers Wells audiences are polite). It was an almost religious experience. And trying to communicate that, it wasn't even like I wanted to use big words or extravagant speech; but like I had a massive phrase inside me, in my nerves and my blood. The only way to communicate...whatever it was...was in shapes, movement, shouts.

I saw the show twice last week, 'The Choreographer's Cut', on its return to Sadlers Wells. And as I left, that feeling came back again: like I needed to bounce around everyone; like I had devoured language; hyperbole was pointless.

Political Mother is so loud, so visually frantic and so powerfully manipulated that you can barely think, only feel its argument, the frustration and fury, recognise the enslavement of all these brothers and sisters in humanity, fighting against their own bodies, having their movements and freedoms released and absorbed and appended by all manner of shifting lofty powers - the band; rhythm itself; the lights; the military dictator, the politician, the rock god persona screaming and contorting atop the stage.

It shows us how power shapes and squeezes the way humans communicate. How we share the same human impulse to commune, to express and share with others. And how the rhetoric of power, of the state, orders and organizes physical movement; and how the very shape and organisation of these movements dictates the impulses and shapes of the rebellions against them.

But it isn’t a simple case of institution=bad, individual=good. Rather, Political Mother literalises hyperbole. It shoves political exaggeration down into the body and its synapses, then let’s it play out amongst a group of people. How this squeezing and organising of impulses shoots off in new directions - new dances – but also how the same shapes come back around.

All these recurring themes: raised arms and bowed heads of the dancers, which arises again and again; lined up facing the audience, overseen by a man in a gorilla mask; backs to the audience, sat down obediently, arms raised to the rock bad above. And their faces – either downcast, chins to their chests, heads bowed; or reverently upwards, the tilt of a worshipper, be it of a late night rave or a military dictator; or both at the same time, headbanging in what seems like the smoothest, most cohesive wave.

It’s dance as an argument, made all the more true, and apt when text intervenes at the very end, coyly illuminating LEDS in pairs of words:


The text is both a dictum and a joke; a statement made tautological when you actually see the bodies DOING it.

And when this phrase flashes up, with some titters of laughter, you realise just how profoundly you have been sucked into the argument too.

We are another group, crowd, that is being exercised upon by the rhetoric of power. The dancers, for the most part, face the same way as us. They see what we see. We see their backs, as they too stare up at the flashing lights; we look the same way, up at the figures of power, with a mixture of fear, disbelief, excitement and, at times, reticence. (The wonderful moment when one by one the worshippers turn away as their buttoned up politician does some dancing of his own.)

For me the show is not a straight criticism of structures of all power, but of believing too much, of giving up totally to the 'logic' of the rhetoric, the logic of the system. Losing your grip on reality - and in turn losing your grip on your body, and how you express the most simple of impulses and feelings. Which is why audiences leave so energised, so hyped: because they have been pumped full of this message and set back onto the world, suddenly released from the darkness of the auditorium into the drizzly greylight of the street.

And ultimately that argument doesn’t just take place on stage: it takes place in the spectator, in the feelings and assaults on the senses. Does it just make us another appended body, another absorber of rhetoric? Probably.

But experiencing Political Mother is experiencing why language is so muddled at the moment...it makes real and tangible the rhetorical desperation, the trying to pin down security, meaning, of life. It makes expressing yourself, physical expression, a crisis. Just because we don’t believe extreme language anymore doesn’t mean that extremity and its consequences have gone away. Hyperbole itself has become irrelevant in language, but desperate in feeling.