20 May 2015. The dancers dart and glide between the patterns of falling and rising juggling clubs, gently varying their steady geometry. These airy diamonds hold the dance momentarily in a live force field. Then there is flow and escape. The violins, viola, cello, and double bass make a harmonious landscape of sound to move in; faces and bodies glow with energy and delight. And we hear the voices of the players; rhythmic speech matching their careful steps and balletic moves, catching and releasing. Sometimes there is an intense and emotional pairing. Then the group joins in and a wider set of links and bonds unfurl in limbs and throws and colours. Juggling hoops turn into wings, turn into halos, turn into dresses of splendour. Loose and endless falling and rising of white circles up there in the dark steady the mind, while below the human arrangements endlessly revolve and evolve. There is love and knowledge of the spaces between each person, other people. We see just how close you can get and still make a beautiful pattern. Then it shifts and breaks into something new. It makes you wonder how this moving marvel is made.
7 May 2015. Sombre and tender he recounts a tale of woes to a handpicked listener but the story fans outward to us who sit in the dark then in the light. The straggling text of online chats are magnified in their littleness as we watch it all scroll down. On stage there are wigs and masks and shoes and pants. They conjure the elusive loved ones. Body parts are fixed and changed and tried; it takes guts to show us how soft it is, how hard it is. His travails cut across the lines of the world. It’s shameful, honest!
Kim Noble drills through walls, he changes his shape, voice, hair, clothes. He goes through bins and shows us shit and rubbish. He sends every emoticon. His yearning is particular and a blur. His home technologies call up humans. He films us awake, he films us asleep, he films the guy across his road. He asks Ian to do up his bra, he asks us to listen, he asks us to Nandos, he asks the computer screen, he joins us at work, he gives us awards, he asks us on dates, he asks. He gathers people to dance with each other on stage at comedy’s end.
Then Kim Noble mounts a white horse, like Don Quixote or the saddest rider of the apocalypse, and goes off stage. A camera follows him. We see him slowly ride away from the Junction. Someone walks alongside him. It is hard to clap because the act has strayed off stage, and whether it was an act feels doubtful. He journeys through the carpark. It’s the end of a storm torn western, the reconciled end of a riven and sorrow filled fable. There’s a man in sad drag on a nag going to Nandos. People are nearby.
I went to see the Cambridge Junction’s Christmas show Around the World in 80 Days on Thursday night, and my heart is still warm and glowing from it, as if there is a nonchalant heap of red and gold coal behind an iron grate on the front of my chest. I had my first mulled wine of the Christmas season just before the show, and the first vibrant taste made me reflect that every year I cycle through forgetting and remembrance of the ornaments of the Christmas season. This diminishing glassful was the beginning of the remembering of the forgotten loveliness of mulling. Another forgotten loveliness, the story of Around the World in 80 Days, was also languishing, very, very dusty, in the far reaches of my memory, and it was brilliantly brought to life in this production by the award-winning company New International Encounter, with real Christmas charm, artistry, wonderful acting and a sumptuous revelling in the magic tricks of the theatre.
As I took my seat the house lights were still up, and the Victorian-costumed actors were gathered casually around an upright piano on stage, listening, as one of them played a sweet, simple, nostalgic tune. This excellent show would unfold many delights, but I particularly enjoyed this company’s handling of the fourth wall, that funny, strange, ethereal barrier between the show itself (the actors, stage and backstage) and the audience. This production’s fourth wall felt gentle, dismantled even, the cast aware of how the open space between us, if delicately handled, would charm us and absorb us into the story.
The story is about Phileas Fogg, an extraordinarily precise and punctual gentleman from London, who makes a bet with the other gentlemen at his club that he can travel around the world in 80 days (arriving just before Christmas). But this jaunt, accompanied by his faithful French manservant Passepartout, coincides with a robbery of the Bank of England, and looks suspiciously like a-run-for-it to the villain of the piece, the ‘extremely unpleasant’ Inspector Fix, who pursues Fogg all the way around the world. I read Around the World in 80 Days when I was about 11, so it was fascinating to see the story again through grown-up eyes. The story really belongs to its time: written by Jules Verne, the visionary science fiction writer of the Victorian age, it is about a moment when the world changed, a great hinge point in history when the scientific advances of the Enlightenment enabled people to move much more quickly around the Earth, powered by steam engines, on trains and ships, and, famously for this story, the hot air balloon. The show captures this sense of wonder for the scientific age, and for me, the wonder felt like a Victorian echo of our current technological leap forward. The production is a lush celebration of the aesthetic world of Victorian England: the stage was littered with potted palms, silk lampshades with bobble tassels, Chesterfield chairs, top hats, an upright piano on wheels. And the theme of time is enjoyably explored, through Phileas Fogg’s obsession with precision, the repetition of train and boat times, time’s collision with the chaos of adventures (a railway that runs out of track in the Indian jungle, a snowstorm on the American prairie).
One of the principle enjoyments of watching this production was seeing how the illusions of theatre were used to take us around the world: from Fogg’s gentlemen’s club in London, with its top-hatted and cigar-puffing men; to Egypt, with fez hats and dripping sweat; the Indian jungle, featuring fronds and an elephant…(yes, you heard me right, an ELEPHANT), Hong Kong, with pentatonic scales and lanterns on long bamboo poles, and on…the whole way around the world. An interesting part of this production’s deliciously permeable fourth wall was the backstage area, which was open for all our eyes to see, with props and instruments casually scattered everywhere, and trunks open and spilling costumes out. And out of this jumble of stuff, the company conjured scene after scene like a running magic show. When I came back from intermission, full of chocolate ice cream, one of the actors was abroad in the audience, doing rope tricks for the children. At one point he said, ‘you have to believe in magic for it to work’, and this struck me as symbolic of the show, and of theatre in general. And my heart skipped happily, and I couldn’t help smiling, because I still believe in magic, and in the theatre.
It’s also a story celebrating the values of Victorian England and the British Empire. Erm…I can’t write a post-colonial review in a post-colonial world without discreetly murmuring ‘ahem’ over the idea of ‘celebrating’ the British Empire…but [Gallic shrug], it’s a Christmas show. It’s for fun, isn’t it? This made me think about the larger context of theatre, of what and who it is for, and on reflection, I decided that this show was just for creating warmth and a sense of fantasy, to transport a theatre full of children around the world in 80 days and the adults with them back into a childlike appreciation of A Good Story, Well Told. And Jules Verne was writing from within his paradigm, his time. So there was an interesting element of temporality surrounding the story, the staging. And it made me consider that there are still unjust paradigms at play in our world, in our time, and society only deconstructs them in a very slow process of awakening. After this philosophical reconciliation of the issue, I relaxed about it, and then my eyes became sweet and misty at the thought of good, old England: its silliness, gentleness, the poignance of emotion felt but contained, its obsession with tea. These were all qualities embodied by Phileas Fogg, who is played ably and with a heart-warming vulnerability subtly glowing through a very English punctiliousness by Martin Bonger. Once Jose, my Spanish housemate who is also living permanently in the UK, said after a trip to Seville, ‘It’s a relief to be back. I come from such a savage culture’. [And then he sipped his tea, daintily.] And I feel the same, as an American living permanently abroad in England. It was a relief to come to England and find so much gentleness and peace everywhere. Of course it is not perfect – what society is? But it has these qualities, these very endearing English qualities. A funny refrain chiming throughout the show is Phileas importuning the passionate, French Passepartout, ‘Passepartout, please control your emotions!’
Ah…and now we come to Passepartout (‘It ees pronounced with a silentt ‘T’!!’). The friendship between Passepartout and Fogg is the emotional centre of the story, the warm hearth of the whole production. Although the various elements of the show were all extremely strong and fine, the performance of Passepartout by the immensely talented Stefanie Mueller (playing across gender, with a delicious French accent) was the standout highlight of the show for me. The French qualities of pragmatism joined to lyrical emotionality that she brought to the part were a beautiful counterpoint to the Englishness of Fogg. One of the only elements of the show that could be improved was the depiction of Fogg’s growing affection and returned loyalty to Passepartout, but I got the feeling this is one of the (very few) nuances that were a bit blunt on opening night, but which will mature as the show goes through its long holiday run. I’m going to see the show again next week, because I feel pulled back, irresistibly, to see Stefanie as Passepartout, and I want to take my friends to see it. Also, the Elephant – I want to see the Elephant again. And have more mulled wine and chocolate ice cream. And see more magic tricks. And have the heap of warm coals presently, metaphorically, serving as my heart gently stirred, the gold glowing, the ash drifting, the warmth catching.
From the New International Encounter Website:
Featuring a cast of six, the show will be playing from 8 December – 4 January 2015 in Cambridge with further touring planned in 2015. Director: Alex Byrne Set & Costume Design: Stefanie Mueller Lighting Designer: Christopher Nairne Musical Director: Carly Davis Cast: Martin Bonger, Carly Davis, Kieran Edwards, Ben Frimston, Keshini Misha, Stefanie Mueller Production Manager: Tom Cotterill
I went to see Don Quijote, a show by Emma Frankland and Keir Cooper, in association with Ultimo Comboio, which came to the Cambridge Junction on Wednesday 24 September. I have a dear Spanish friend, José, so I invited him to come with me. As we entered J3, the Junction’s smaller studio theatre, we were seated like a kindergarten class on the floor in the middle of the space; and then it transpired that the show would spin around us like a new galaxy in mixed theatrical materials, jumping from wall to wall, then into our midst – and we, the audience, were in a state of continuing scatter and scramble, re-mixed like Cervantes’ four hundred-year-old work.
It was a show where book love dripped through the theatre: serif’d words about the Spanish knight on cream backgrounds glowed, large, on the walls around us, and a live circular saw sheared through the binding of a fat edition so fluttering pages could be thrown joyously through the air at us. Don Quixote was a she in this imagining, and she chose José, my José, to be her Sancho Panza and took him away on an adventure outside the theatre, only returning him at the very end of the show.
His departure left a strange gap by my side, and I kept wondering where he was and what was happening to him, while the performance stirred me in increasingly profound ways. I’m a lover of the tensile strength of a story, and I watch the way stories travel across time and culture, how they hide, survive, and kaleidoscope into variances; and beholding this story was like looking at one of the grandfather trees in the forest, mighty and still alive. The production used a pleasingly chaotic mix of theatrical materials, including projected shadow animation that travelled the walls, vignette, absurdity, storytelling, collage, flamenco and rock ‘n roll to explore the ancient story, all the while showing a fierce and reverent respect for the original.
The show played with the idea of whether a story is true by telling us a story that confidently announced its truth (like Cervantes’ novel) — and then, when a live skyped teleconference revealed that the storyteller was telling us a fiction, the layering of story/truth was set spinning in the same way as the original…thereby catching the audience in the question mark, where we hung, our senses aroused more sharply for a philosophical hunt: asking What is Really True…about Anything?
And then, delectably, satisfyingly, the show traced the aspect of human nature that the original story curves lovingly around, by telling us a fast-paced stream of true stories about quixotic real-life people: Steven Gough, the Naked Rambler, who has been told by the highest court in the land that it is not his right to ramble naked; Maria Alyokhina from Pussy Riot, who said upon being released from prison, ‘If I had the right to refuse freedom, I would’, because she knew the idea – the dream – behind her protest lived stronger behind bars. These are the ones who dream big and bear accusations of madness, and keep dreaming, and give everything for their dream.
I wished so deeply that José could be with me, because there was a particular, increasing-in-intensity, flavour of Spanish political passion infused into the show that I knew he would love with his part-political activist, part artist, and fully passionate heart…and also because he rocks pretty hard and loves music, and The Matador, played by Emma Frankland, our guide through the deeply affecting and intelligent chaos of the show – after stoking the dreams burning in our hearts via the true stories of the Quixotes who live among us, for real – busted out an electric guitar and set them fully alight via REALLY LOUD AND AWESOME GUITAR ROCK N’ ROLL.
Ah. Art. This is why I love it so much. Have you ever had a dream? How much daylight do you give your dream? How much oxygen? How much fire? Is it buried? How deep? The show was brilliant, beautiful, complex, mysterious. There were many layers, angles and nuances. I have only explored a small corner of the show’s significance and wonder. But these were the questions, the highly important questions, the show unearthed…and they aren’t just personal questions. They are questions to be asked about our collective dreams, for things like truth and freedom.
At the end of the show, Don Quijote came back with Sancho, played by José Delgado of Seville (now resident in Cambridge), and we learned they had been on a quest. José had been having a singular theatrical experience, one that delved deeply into his individual Quixote nature, and he was aglow with the magic of it. So aglow, I ceased regretting he hadn’t had the same experience as me, and simply enjoyed the light emitting from him. I realised he had just had a different shake of the kaleidoscope.
I am very honoured to say that the Cambridge Junction – our city’s most diverse and serious home for the arts, which sits out on the skirt of the city centre by the train station, inhaling and exhaling the arts and audiences – has made me their Blogger in Residence for the 2014-15 arts programme. My friends there asked me to write this introductory post about the arts, culture and criticism for their new blog, and, well…hmm…’critic’ is a funny word, isn’t it?
To be honest, I don’t feel like ‘A Critic’….although what ‘A Critic’ is exists differently, separately, in your mind and my mind and everybody else’s mind and can’t be reliably nailed down as a concept. It is a word that can crack and break apart under the spinning force of changing meaning; but at this point in history it is heavily associated with negative appraisal, and with certain rhetorical traditions in journalism and academia. I dislike the condescending archness of much traditional journalistic criticism. I think this has slid seductively into journalistic arts writing because it is sensationalist, and sells. The reason why it frustrates me is that the bitchy rhetorical register often adopted as a common tone warps the critical lens. Academic criticism is generally more beautiful and pure in spirit, but it is often inaccessibly, pointlessly complex. But it’s interesting to think that journalistic and academic criticism are housed things - within traditions, editorial structures, expectations. However, after several hundred years of criticism being contained and shaped in these traditional publishing edifices, there is a new and peculiar publishing space: the internet.
When I started writing about the arts, I stood at a crossroads and looked down the two paths: traditional arts journalism or blogging. The decision took less than a second, because my heart was clamouring for complete creative freedom. I remember thinking, ‘If I have my own website, I could write a poem as a response! A 7,000-word essay! A transcribed dialogue! A poetic version of a transcribed dialogue!’ And then I discovered that this is a trend, a brilliant trend, where writers, enabled by the abundant freedom of the web, are breaking free of traditional publishing pathways, and expectations, and creating a wildly diverse and creative new type of arts response, one which is particularly championed by the Junction, who started an arts writing group last year to foster exactly this sort of new response to the arts in Cambridge.
I do share the original impulse behind journalistic or academic criticism, which is to attempt to provide a clear, meaningful explanation for why a piece of art is powerful, beautiful or valuable, or why one isn’t. But I guess my way of doing that exists in a different paradigm that, to me, feels more like, well, appreciation than criticism. I have a heart-pounding, dewy-eyed, deep, deep love for all art, for the mere fact of its existence. I have always been aware that it is real magic that we live amongst.
An old English teacher from high school, the Michigan poet Michael Delp, used to ask our class over and over again, ‘What is it about Huckleberry Finn that makes you want to build a raft and sail down a river?’ He never answered this question for us, because how could he? But because of that, I have always asked the question of art: ‘how deeply have you moved me?’ and ‘will I change the way I see and live because of you?’
Along with my love for creativity is a responsible-feeling desire to see art clearly and truthfully, asking each work ‘what do you intend?, and ‘what is your potential?’ and crucially, ‘where are you are in the rough and ragged journey of realising that potential?’ Because a fully-realised artistic idea is the most powerful, the most moving.
A friend who recently read some of the posts on my blog mirrorlamp.co.uk asked me, ‘Do you ever dislike anything you see?’, because all of the posts are positive responses. I thought about this for several days, and then My Appraisal Apparatus appeared in my imagination as a clanking wooden and metal contraption inside me capable of measuring Value, Power, and Beauty in Art. Once it took shape, I contemplated it: structurally it is built out of thousands of hours of reading, listening, and watching. There are highly polished sections, embellished with ideas from my degrees in the humanities (literature, music and theatre), and a couple of rougher areas I have built on my own with hours but no schooling (film, visual art and popular music). What powers the whole thing it is a heart full of love for the arts. And I saw that the amount of hours I’ve spent contemplating art have given me a deep sensitivity to how skill, technique, and craft allow an artistic idea either to flourish or falter, and that this is a valuable aspect that helps me to see a work of art clearly.
I do, of course, see things I feel are underdeveloped or unskilled – and some of them are at the Junction, which on the whole programmes brilliant work from the finest range of the cutting edge in the country, but inevitably very occasionally doesn’t, because the cutting edge is a tricksy place. However, I realised that alongside the axis of idea-realisation-or-not-via-craft, I have another axis, which is about resonance, and I saw that I only enjoy writing about shows that resonate with me. This resonance is mysterious…as mysterious as art, and as mysterious as me. In general, I tend to resonate with art that is more fully realised; but sometimes I resonate with a flawed beauty, whose potential shines through an underdeveloped technique.
And now we have wandered into The Big Question Mark of Aesthetics: where does individual resonance overlap with power and value, and where do we draw the lines? I don’t know…who does? But I like hanging out on this Question Mark…there is an inviting, cradling curve to it, and some tilts, shadowed nuances and sharp edges, and a wondrous dot that I could look at for hours…and I really like the other people who come here.
Following my encounter with Beckett last week at the Cambridge Arts Theatre, and the ensuing roaring hunger of my being for more like it (more deep, dark, delicious artistic abstraction), the Cambridge theatre world gave me The Hand That Takes by artists CJ Mahony and Georgie Grace at the Cambridge Junction on Wednesday night.
The Hand That Takes is a spiky title that reflects the fiery, crackling political theme of the show, ‘the sleight-of-hand trick that transformed bank debt into our collective debt and ushered in austerity measures, cuts and privatisation’. The show is described as ‘an immersive promenade performance using live voice, recorded sound and darkness…’.
I wondered about the term ‘promenade performance’: this meant that I would walk into the black cube of the Junction’s studio theatre, J3, and be plunged into complete darkness, that I would need to put one arm up defensively as if it were holding a shield, and use the other hand to feel, that my feet would step forward tentatively and fearfully, at first. What my hands felt on either side of me were the smooth, wooden walls of a maze. At regular intervals, there were interruptions in the walls – gaps – which were puzzling, and after the first two minutes or so, they began to glow red. It was too dark to see the identities of the other audience members – we were all just dark figures moving slowly around – but when the red began to glow through the gaps, we all drifted towards the meagre light.
What we saw were enclosures that each held a huge speaker emitting the cavernous, thunderous bass-filled soundscape that filled our ears and which sent reverberations through the wood walls we were holding onto as we walked slowly around. The red glow came from messages running across stock ticker machines next to the speakers…the market needs to believe…sources are knowledgeable…the market is telling us we got it right…futures are up this morning…this government is on your side… The darkness, deep bass drone and hypnotic and coded messages were heavily evocative of the subterranean dread that I can feel running through our society around the issues of how we are governed and what politicians are doing with our money. There was a sense of barely-suppressed, angry glee in the deployment of artistic effects that symbolise, frankly, evil: glowing red lights, electric chords signifying ‘dread’, loss of identity and power in darkness, a maze.
And then nature, beauty and truth cut through dread and darkness, and the dimensions of the piece broke out of the surface themes of ‘debt’ and ‘politics’ into the philosophic realms where we contemplate our humanity: the singing started. A trio of male voices, I think two tenors and a bass, suddenly rang out loudly in lush harmonies, forming an exhilarating contrast to the electronic soundscape and flashing machine messages. It reminded me of middle-period Richard Strauss choral music: it contained the strange aches of twentieth century atonality mixed with reassuring returns to harmonies in deep agreement. It was beautifully composed (by Cheryl Francis-Hoad), and beautifully, powerfully sung (by Sheridan Edward, Aris Nadirian and Jon Stainsby), and I was transfixed by it. It was hard to tell in the dark where the singers were, and I assumed they were ‘off-stage’, i.e off this curious, interactive, maze-stage – until during one of the breaks in the singing, a figure came to stand at one of the glowing red gaps in the maze walls near to me and after a moment started singing – and then I realised the singers were walking around immersed in the audience. The text for the songs was the same messages that were running across the stock ticker machines. The moment where this piece deeply captured me came while watching the singer beside me as he sang the words, ‘Growth without end…without purpose…this government is on your side…’ It reminded me of the doxology we sang every Sunday in my childhood church back in Michigan: ’World without end…a-men…a-men’, and this resonance made me shiver, as I thought of the alignment between the pillars of our establishment – religion, banks, politicians, media – and their practice of co-opting language to hide, code, and euphemise behaviours that are essentially base and rotten. This was a beautiful moment where the slippery, silvery nuances of the piece’s themes came together in a little artistic vortex: //fear-debt-darkness//; //beauty-truth-Nature-humanity-(and the poignance of their lack) symbolised by the human voice (enacted by a voice achieving its fullest potential…a master tenor singing two feet away, really going for it, which resonated me head-to-toe, body, mind and soul)//; //the fullness and integrity of meaning in words (and the poignance of their lack)//.
At this point a memory rose up of Robert Wilson’s Walking, a large-scale, immersive, participatory modern theatre piece which was staged on the Norfolk coast in August 2012. I worked as a volunteer on the production, and while I was there I met the wonderful Boukje Schweigman, Dutch theatre-maker and Wilson’s artistic collaborator. She gave a talk where she used the phrase, ‘artistic language’ to describe the modes – the facets or tools – of expression that are unique to every individual artist. The Hand That Takes was my first encounter with the art of CJ Mahony and Georgie Grace, and when the singing started, I felt then that I heard and understood their ‘language’: it was heavily political in theme and enacted within a visual art installation framework, with embellishments that crossed the line over into performance. It was large, three-dimensional and sensorally immersive. It wanted to cradle the audience in its largeness and largesse. It was compelling and beautiful, and the counterpoint of the classical singing against the darkness and technologized sound felt symbolic of both a generalised feeling of hopelessness about the inability of our raised voices to fight the dark forces in our government and the immutability and irrepressibility of truth, beauty and humanity.
In other ways, The Hand That Takes had resonances with Wilson’s work: there was a measured slowness of staging that encouraged a gentle participation of imagination and senses with the piece, which allowed a gradual unfolding of the themes. It was participatory, with large-scale, strange constructions inviting contemplation. And most importantly, there was an exciting fertility rising out of its use of abstraction. When the singing started, and this other, more philosophic dimension in the piece opened, a rush of ideas flooded my mind: how the voice is a symbol for our personal contribution to society, to self-governance, to protest. The beauty of the singing evoked the idea of fineness in human nature, but at the same time, it also asked, ‘what singing or speaking is questionable…is a lie hidden in silky words?’, ‘ What does the government and media sing to us?’ The programme for the show mentions the story of the Minotaur – a Greek myth in which, on the advice of the Delphic oracle, the children of Athens are sacrificed to pay a debt they didn’t create. This allusion was another fascinating dimension in the show because Athens was the birthplace of Western democracy. And the idea of the ‘oracle’ suggested the mysterious nature of the market and the significance it casts over our lives, our society, our humanity – as well as questioning the motives of the modern ‘oracles’ who claim the role of interpreters of the mysteries of the market. It was interesting that the show also occupied this ancient/modern axis.
As I’m sure you can tell, I deeply enjoyed this experience. It sent a controlled current of anger through me that reactivated my awareness of my rights and power as a citizen of a democracy, and that felt really good. And it was another validation of my deeply-held belief that the arts are powerful and important to our humanity. As Liv Ullmann was quoted as saying recently in The Guardian (12/9/14), ‘We still think we are the audience to everything; we don’t understand we are not witnesses, we are participants. You cannot save the world, I cannot…but if we do allow beauty, if we don’t kill movies and concerts and ballets and books, we still have a chance.’ The arts are powerful because they are a choir for unique raised voices countering – questioning – the way our society works, the conduct of the government. I could see that The Hand That Takes was still rough around the edges, that it was a work in progress – and, in fact, this was its first iteration in preparation for a fuller staging later this year – but it was already coherent, powerful and fascinating, both artistically and politically, and I look forward to seeing the next round of its evolution and refinement.
I went to see a trio of short Beckett plays at the Cambridge Arts Theatre a few days ago, and I arrived in the foyer four minutes before the show started with a slightly run-ragged soul – you know, I’m sure, the state of being where you’ve been running (metaphorically) for a long time and tending to multiple important fires that must not go out in your life, and your holiday is just over the next hill, but you need to keep going…a little longer. I didn’t really think I had time for the theatre, for Beckett, to be ‘out’. But – of course – it was worth it.
I knew a little about Samuel Beckett from my English studies – that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature, that he was artistically oriented on the squeaking, abstract hinge between modernism and post-modernism, that he was Irish – but having never studied him directly or inquired more deeply on my own, that was about it, and I had never seen any of his plays performed before. This show – three short one-act plays from his late period, performed one after the other with brief pauses between them – Not I (1972), Footfalls (1975), and Rockaby (1980) – was produced by the Royal Court Theatre and is now making its way around the country on a tour after a critically-acclaimed run in the West End. I didn’t know any of that before I stepped into the theatre – a friend had just texted at the last minute with the offer of a free ticket, and so I finished what I was doing and rushed there. I learned afterwards that the production links directly back to Beckett himself: that the director was Walter Asmus, Beckett’s longtime friend and collaborator and the director of a production of Waiting for Godot widely described as ‘the definitive one’; also that the actress for each of these one-woman shows, Lisa Dwan, was tutored for the play Not I by Billie Whitelaw, who performed the role at its 1973 premiere and who was personally coached for the part by Beckett himself.
But it felt good to not know. It was interesting to take a tired soul into the theatre and see what happened to it there and to encounter Beckett directly for the first time with no previously determined critical overlay. To discover that something coiled up tight inside me stretched out and relaxed in response to the absence of light and the absence of sense. Because the first thing that happened was that we were engulfed in darkness, and a single, small spotlight appeared on a mouth hovering five feet in the air above the stage, which spoke a stream-of-consciousness jumble of words spoken at the speed of thought. This was the first play, Not I. My mind couldn’t follow any perceived trail of coherence through the work, because it was a collage, just snapshots of thoughts, spoken lightning fast. And so my mind gave up – and relaxed (deeply…for the first time in ages). And the dark felt so dark…it made me feel liberated from my body in a way, from the clothes I chose to wear, my identity, my friend beside me – it felt like I was also hovering, a disembodied being or consciousness – just thoughts. The words were the mundane mixed in with the profound, mixed up with the profound, with contemplations of mortality hidden under and sometimes bursting out from thoughts about the everyday. It was riveting and powerful.
The second piece, Footfalls, is about a woman, May, pacing in exactly repetitive steps, presumably outside the door of her dying mother’s room. During this play my delight with Beckett crystallised. What I loved about Beckett’s writing was the way the sublime echoed out of the simple. Extras were stripped out. It is suggested that this woman is mentally disordered, and that she must pace, and a voiceover of her mother asks, ‘Will you never have done revolving it all?’, and then ‘it all’ is repeated, with the questions echoing within this compact phrase left unanswered, like a stone dropped into a subterranean cave. There is an unlimited potential significance to the phrase. Beckett had a close relationship with James Joyce and at a crucial juncture in his artistic development wrote:
“I realized that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realized that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.”
The effect of this subtracting is increasing abstracting: via the removal of concrete, linear contexts in storytelling, Beckett is releasing the power of the void, of darkness, mystery, potential, of the fragrant possibilities of unanswered questions. ‘It all’ revolved in my mind, achieving a desperate poignance: what was ‘it all’? My only conclusion was a deep feeling of compassion: ‘It’ must have hurt so badly, to break her mind. And then ‘it’ became universalised – a symbol for all of the pain we endure in our progress through the experience of being human – anything and everything. And so then ‘it’ became ‘everything’. I was quite stunned by the beauty and brilliance of this. Rockaby was also wonderful – it was a deep and fascinating contemplation of mortality.
And what can I say about the theatre craft of this production? Simply that it was so fine, it disappeared into the art. There was a coherence of artistic choices which culminated in what felt like a pure expression, a pure realisation of the writing. It felt wonderful to be shown a creation where every detail has been crafted to such a high standard with the end artistic effect in mind: pace, tone, light, staging, acting. Lisa Dwan was brilliant. The only disappointing moment was looking around me after the lights came up at the end to see that the theatre was half-empty. I felt a sharp ache that such a theatrical gem should be gleaming away for several days in the city centre, so unseen. Oh, Cambridge, I love you so much, but sometimes it worries me that you don’t go to the theatre more often. Well, perhaps when you’re ready, when the time is right, you’ll discover the cultural riches glittering in the good theatres, waiting to quietly (or outrageously) transfigure your soul.
The Tour de France is coming to Cambridge this week, and it kind of feels like the French mountains have arrived in town, too…like the scenery and culture of the race have been draped across our sweet, flat city like a yellow jersey. The Cambridge Junction cannily scheduled a bicycle-themed art event for this weekend: Rider Spoke by the internationally-renowned UK art company Blast Theory, a show which premiered with a sold-out season at the Barbican, London and has since been touring worldwide. It is a participatory piece of modern theatre on bicycle: each audience member is given a bike that is fitted with a small computer and headphones by the artists. Then you are instructed to cycle off into the city alone, led on an individual journey by the voice in the headphones, and interacting with the bike’s computer touch screen at different stopping places. You are asked questions – interesting questions…personal questions – and invited to record answers, which are then ‘hidden’ – digitally deposited – in the place where you are stopped. You are also invited to listen to other (anonymous) audience members’ recorded stories.
Yesterday evening Molly Flynn, Georgie Grace and I did Rider Spoke, and afterwards we cycled to the corner of York and Sleaford Street where my favourite pub in Cambridge, the Geldart, is hidden away in a suburban maze of terraced houses, and we wrote interactively about the show. Here is what we asked each other and ourselves, and how we replied.
Joy asks, ‘What was artful about the experience of Rider Spoke?’
Joy…As an audience member, your interface with the piece is completely different to usual theatre-going. When the Blast Theory artist met me outside the Junction and took my bike away to put the computer on it, it felt like handing my bike over to someone in a bike shop, which is a prosaic experience in Cambridge. But even though it was a completely different way to step into the ‘theatre’, it still felt like the start of a Piece of Art, with the boundary of a Beginning and an End, which imbued this mundane happening with a heightened sense of art-magic. For example, I re-considered my bike: it now felt like a prop in the theatre, which made it feel more magical, more transporting… And then the living, real streets of Cambridge became scenery, and I found that fascinating. And I was a moving, thinking, breathing element of the theatre, as well as an audience member.
After I was given a short introduction about how to use the little touch-screen computer and instructed to put the headphones in my ears, I cycled away. And then music and a voice came through the headphones. The voice was kind, and the music was whimsical, gentle, and slightly poignant – appropriate for cycling. As I stopped at the Junction of Cherry Hinton and Hills Road, the voice said, ‘I will be with you all the way…I bless you on your journey…’
And what I thought was artful was that the project had these two dimensions: the Material – the computer gadget, headphone buds in my ears, my bike, the road, the pavement, direction, traffic lights, other people – and the Immaterial: my choices, memories, impressions, feelings and thoughts rising up in response to the questions the voice asked me, like ‘when was the last time you held someone’s hand in the street?’. The answer to this question was a long, complicated, multi-dimensional story about love, and having it called up to the surface was very stirring for me. I recorded my answer, which was about my last boyfriend. It was true love, genuinely, for real – but we were forced by circumstances and time to acknowledge that sometimes even true love doesn’t work out. When I listened to my recording, I felt a lot of love…for myself – because I heard the strength in my voice as I told the story, and I loved myself for being able to travel through that experience and keep my heart open and hopeful. It was really interesting to listen to myself tell this story, and it kind of surprised me to hear the strength and hope in my own voice, to regard myself from a very unusual vantage point, and notice something extremely positive that I hadn’t seen before. And at that point, I appreciated the gentle power of Rider Spoke for creating this experience. But it was interesting to discover later, talking with Molly and Georgie, that we were all given different questions, and we had quite different experiences as a result. It was also interesting to realise that this story of mine would become theatrical content for someone else in the coming days.
Molly asks, ‘When you left the Junction, where did you go, and why?’
Georgie… I can’t help feeling like I went the wrong way. This is the theatre of free will: you don’t get a seat, you don’t get to surrender yourself and sink into your perceptions and…receive the theatre. You have to keep moving…you have to keep going out and getting experience. It’s all up to you. You might see nothing, experience nothing. It’s hard to drift, it’s hard to surrender. It’s hard not to feel like there’s a conclusion you’re supposed to be working towards. It’s hard to feel free.
Joy… I watched you and Georgie go off, and I wondered where you were going, but I wanted to be alone with the experience, so I went a different way. I felt a really strong pull towards the river closest to the Junction, and almost as if I could see the path laid out for where I wanted to go – over the railway bridge, left down Brooklands Avenue (I love the leafy, green stillness of Brooklands Avenue), and then across Trumpington Road into the meadows by the river there.
Georgie… I saw Joy go one way and I thought I shouldn’t go the same way, so I went the other way. I went down Cherry Hinton Road, and the traffic was bad and loud. I was trying to get away from…crowds? people? traffic? I was expecting/wanting a … what kind of experience? I felt a lot of pressure to experience something… new, or real, or…interesting.
Molly…I didn’t know where I was going. I went away from the places that I knew, thinking I might discover something. I had the idea that I was meant to get lost. But it was so….suburban, but in an English way. I was supposed to find a place that I liked. That’s what the voice on the computer told me. But you know, I struggled to find a place that I felt a genuine affinity for. So eventually I stopped and listened to the recording and reassured myself that there was something redeeming about the place where I was.
Joy asks, ‘What effect did the questions have on you?’
Molly… In the world I live in here, people don’t share their personal stories. In fact, I wonder if they even have them. They must, but I never hear them. I used to have personal stories to share, but these days I have fewer and fewer. Work has become so dominant, and, for the first time in my life, relationships have become secondary. The questions posed to me in Rider Spoke asked me to confront these aspects of my life. I can’t say that I learned something new about myself, something I didn’t already know, but I did appreciate the time to be really honest.
Georgie asks, ‘What would you have done differently?’
Molly…I’d have started off by going to more familiar places.
Georgie…Would you do this again?
Molly…Yes, in fact, as soon as it was over I wanted to do it again right away. I wanted to hear all of the stories and answer all of the questions, and I felt disappointed that I didn’t have time to do it all.
Georgie…Do you think you gave good content?
Molly…I think I gave honest content.
Georgie…Did you get good content?
Molly…I felt it was worth listening to.
Georgie…Did you re-record?
Georgie…Were you tempted to lie?
At one point we digressed away from the questions and wrote…
Georgie… It made me realise that I feel really bored of living here. Like, how do I get lost in a place I’ve lived for so long? I mean, I did get lost, because I’m always getting lost, because I have no sense of direction, but … meaningfully lost … interestingly lost … lost in a way that’s worth recording? I was just in the fucking suburbs. I was going around in circles.
Molly…I also feel bored living here. Actually, it’s not so much that I feel bored as much as I feel alone. Although, I’ve come to accept that loneliness and even value the time I’ve spent here, but I did feel throughout the piece that my life in Cambridge has been quite solitary. Extremely solitary. And I’ve often thought that there must be people around who might think or feel the kinds of things that I think or feel, but I’ve struggled to find them.
During our spoken and written conversation after the show, in the glow of our laptops and candlelight in the Geldart, we talked about how modern theatre is increasingly involving the audience in the work – how the audience becomes the work, with different interactive frames around their essential, live, unfolding humanity. And we talked about how the structure of this show suggests existential parallels and mirrors the tensions between how we navigate the fixed circumstances of the world around us using our free will. We talked about the different questions we were asked – the questions appeared to branch off from each other in random patterns, presenting each rider with a different set – and it turned out that Georgie didn’t like her questions, and so she had a totally different experience to Molly and me, and didn’t enjoy it as much. Molly had started off feeling like there was a ‘right’ way to do the experience, but by the end, she said, ‘Eventually I let go of the idea that I had gone the wrong way or made the wrong choice.’
Georgie, who is particularly attuned to picking up the level above the level, commented that it was a bit insane to find real connection in Cambridge – to hear the personal stories of the people surrounding us – via a piece of modern theatre creating a digital web of recorded stories deposited in different locations of the city that you can only access by buying a ticket. And today, while thinking back on the show, what strikes me most is that after having this thoroughly enjoyable, though solitary, artistic experience, I felt so grateful to be able to spend time in the safe, conspiratorial huddle of friendship talking about it afterwards, in the magical environs of the Geldart – a place where the lay lines of individual life trajectories come together. The Geldart, in particular, seems to understand and embrace its deeper role as a ‘Place’ for the magic that happens when we meet, when we connect. It seemed that for all of us, the show teased up an awareness of the reality or depth of the connections we have in Cambridge, to places and people…that it highlighted an awareness of what our ‘community’ of Cambridge is like, and what we wish it was like… Through the artistic lens of Rider Spoke we experienced a deep, anonymous sharing with other people, and a heightened sense of relationship to the streets, corners, and shady groves of the city, alone on our bikes, and this made us realise, as Georgie wrote later, that ‘the real thing that we care about is sharing something real with people we know. And knowing people, having people in our lives, so we make new memories and feel genuinely attached to places. We want our actual lives to have good content.’ It’s interesting to reflect at the end of this review, with the heightened awareness that Rider Spoke gave me, that my favourite two things about the experience were, actually, Molly and Georgie.
Sunday 15 June, 21:32
So I left the house yesterday afternoon around 4pm, cycled to Clifton Way and fell down a rabbit hole, and I have just returned home. My skin is still gently exhaling Leffe-scented molecules, several large strands of my hair are twined with a delicate cement of dried applesauce, my right thumb is dyed red, and the spider-bite on my left arm is now the size of an espresso cup’s mouth. I feel like a liminal creature, still between-worlds.
Where did I go? And what happened to me there? For nearly a full spin of the planet I have been in the Cambridge Junction for the Nightwatch festival. It was, literally, a junction for 24 hours – with doors, vortexes and permeable mirrors into the parallel universe of modern theatre, from 12 noon yesterday (Saturday 14 June) to 12 noon today. The acts included Figs in Wigs, Sleepwalk Collective, Search Party, Christopher Brett Bailey, GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, Ann Liv Young, The Anna Williams Trust and Lemonade and Laughing Gas, to name just a few.
I arrived at the festival yesterday in the early evening. The sun had begun to gentle down, and the light in the paved plaza outside the theatre was starting to look a little rosy. The Junction had added a couple of picnic tables to the space just outside its doors, and a bright red burger van that looked like a child’s toy truck was parked there, too. The only other adornments in honour of the festival were several square, steel flower pots containing rosebushes, thick with clustered pink buds. I went inside to the Box Office and was presented with my ticket to the adventures of the next 18 hours, which was a pink paper wristband.
Then I saw Jennifer Pick from GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN on the stairs up to the theatre. I went to tell her that I’m me, curious to know if she read my recent review of their latest show. She and her performing partner Lucy McCormick were the Comperes of the festival and were vamping around in slinky red dresses with microphones (in a conscious and satirical performance of presenting), holding the edges of the festival magic intact with their commentary. I was a little nervous to talk to Jen, because I like her and Lucy so much. (Do you know the space inside yourself where laughter starts? And how the light that emits from that space awakens multiple layers of seeing and understanding stacked on top of each other in your mind? And how it feels warm, joyous, delicious? My favourite people and performers activate this inner glowing, and seeing Jen and Lucy always sets me alight.)
So I said, ‘Hi Jen. I’m Joy – . I don’t know if you – . Um, I wrote a review – . Did you – ?’ These fragments tumbled out of me inarticulately. Layered over the top of the last two, Jen said, ‘You’re Joy? I love what you wrote.’ I don’t know what I said after that – something – because my brain was popping and fizzing, to find love on the stairs. My writing confidence has been a bit crumbly lately, and to hear this was to be given a foundation stone.
Next, I saw my friend Christopher Brett Bailey outside by the burger van, surrounded by the musicians for his new show This is How We Die, which was about to play in a few hours. His hair, which we have never discussed, as usual hovered timelessly suspended 6 inches up from his face, like the wild and vivid concepts he conjures in his performances. It gives the impression that he is upside-down in this reality. After a hug and introduction to his band, the first thing we said was how excited we were that Nightwatch had a big room for sleeping, which made the whole thing feel like a giant kids’ sleepover, except with liquor and great theatre performances. Also, the sleeping room looked really, really cool: the Junction had transformed the black-painted, cavernous gig room in J1 into a cuddly, peaceful space, with a white, tented ceiling hanging over a flotilla of smooth-sheeted double mattresses piled with pillows. A giant disco ball hung at the peak of the tent like a mobile. It epitomised cosiness. It also made you feel at home, to have this safe place – a bed, some quietness, a retreat – there, whenever you might need it.
Then Chris and the band went off for pre-show prep, I got my first beer, saw that my spider-bite had grown smaller – it was now about the size of a tea cup’s rim – and I went into my first show, which was Karaoke by Spain-based company Sleepwalk Collective, at 7pm.
I was six hours late for Nightwatch, which started at noon, because I’ve been living inside a tin of molasses for a couple of weeks. I think over here you call it treacle. I’ve been in the UK for fifteen years, but I still call treacle molasses. I’ve been trying to write a new essay for Mirrorlamp, but it’s been impossible because my laptop doesn’t fit inside my tin of molasses. (Something happened to me two weeks ago, which I can’t tell you about, and it was the kind of thing that makes you seek a hiding place, fast, and stay there for a long time. It was the kind of thing that makes you feel like your voice disappears, and like you can’t hear or see or think very well.) But after two weeks of dark, sticky slowness, the night before Nightwatch, my friends Hayley and Rob invited me for a drink at the Mill Pond, and this felt like the lid popping off the tin and a glimpse of sky.
Rob Baskerville – how can I describe him? He’s the kind of a man who breaks the river speed limit with his Dutch barge (4 mph) so he can ride a surfboard attached to the back (which rocks the other boats, and the old people inside probably spill their tea), who attaches a zip line between the Stourbridge Common railway bridge and his boat so he can fly down into the river on a hot day, who gets a leftover house foundation lining from his father-in-law and decides to manually dig a big, big hole in the garden, line it, fill it with the garden hose and make a pool so he can do cannonballs off the roof, who says ‘I love you’ to his wife Hayley on her birthday by stripping naked, laying down in the party-filled back garden at midnight with only a firework cassette to cover his modesty and setting light to it. He is like a human embodiment of the Native American trickster Coyote. After my friend Julie met him, she said with wonder in her voice, ‘He’s Loki’.
When I arrived at the Mill Pond, Rob, Hayley, Ali, Will, and Jesse were all lounging by the weir on the bridge, just across from the pub. As I hugged round the circle in hello, with my back to Rob, Hayley said, ‘Rob, no!’, and I realised the back of my skirt was lifted up and my pants were on view to the evening crowd. When I twirled around, Rob held his hands up, then pointed at Ali. He does a very convincing innocent face. Although it could have been Ali. Sometimes he is innocent. The laugh arrived in my chest like medicine. Then they said, ‘We’re moving to the Fort St. George (another pub on the river). Come with us…we’re going by canoe.’ Rob is the kind of man who travels through Cambridge by canoe.
I love canoeing. As mentioned in previous Mirrorlamp essays, being in water is bliss to me. But, I was very treacly, and at first I hesitated while worries broadcast across my mind – I had my bike and it would be a pain to have to get it later, maybe I should cycle and meet them there, it’s easy to tip a canoe, what if the canoe tipped and me and Louis (my dog) fell in the river and I lost my phone and I got that disease you get from from rat’s pee; but of course, these were all just fear and suppression – they are the thugs of my psyche, and although I am compassionate for the reasons why they haunt me, I don’t want them to choose which roads I travel through life. This decision about how to get to the pub felt strangely important, because I was so conscious of the real psychic junction it symbolised, with paths leading off in two directions: one toward fear, one toward joy. The path I clearly wanted and deserved was the river in the sun-suffused evening, in a boat with friends.
So I told my fear to fuck off, right off, and I chose well – and ten minutes later I was sitting on the front seat of an American canoe paddling quietly through the lush, enclaved gardens of the ancient colleges on the river, delight blossoming in my core, with Will at the back, and Ali holding Louis perfectly safely in the middle, and Rob, Hayley and Jesse darting around us in kayaks. It’s probably been ten years since I was in a canoe, and I felt the Cherokee in my blood wake up. We arrived at the Fort St. George, pulled the boats out of the water, and I drank beer and laughed and laughed and laughed as the day gave way to night. I went to sleep happy.
When I woke up in the morning, I discovered that I had a spider-bite on my left arm that had swollen up in a circle the size of a coffee mug ring imprinted on a piece of paper. With the Cherokee part of me still awake, I remembered how Native Americans believe that a spider is a symbol for the infinite possibilities of creation, because the two lobes of its body mirror the number 8, the symbol for infinity, and because it weaves its web. I have always interpreted tête-à-têtes with spiders as a message from the esoteric forces telling me to get busy creating, writing, choosing, and living. So this enormous spider-bite, discovered the morning of Nightwatch after two weeks of being unable to write, felt interesting.
But even so, I was still treacly when I woke up, and under the influence of a gentle hangover, so I was stuck to my bed all morning, and I was six hours late to Nightwatch. But finally I made it and took my seat in the J2 theatre for my first show: Sleepwalk Collective’s Karaoke. The stage setting was interesting and strange: a black box and karaoke monitor facing away from the audience, a fluffy, pastel blue piñata in the shape of a bomb suspended from above, and an oasis of plastic, inflatable palm trees. A large projector screen covered the back of the stage. A beautiful, Spanish roller-girl stood on stage next to a boyish man who was wearing a t-shirt that said ‘I love Sarajevo’. She held a microphone and stood in front of the karaoke machine, watching it and projecting an air of skittish fragility. When the show started, the words of the karaoke machine were projected onto the screen behind them, so we could read the words, too.
From the beginning, the dialogue between the karaoke machine, roller-girl and boy was highly poetic, and I could feel the poetry fucking with my mind, in a way I liked; it was elegant and existential, like the koans that Zen masters pose to their students, to encourage their minds to tip into a state of perfect clarity. It told us to ‘stretch our ears toward silence.’ I inhaled, deeply grateful, when the first poetry started to wash over me. This was why I came to Nightwatch – so that art could reach inside of me, shake me up and light me up so I could perceive in a new way, a truer way. The pace of the piece was languid, contemplative, lulling. The experience made for a gentle emergence of my soul from its molasses coating, and I was grateful for this.
The karaoke machine symbolised the elements in our psyches that unconsciously sing words that someone else tells us to sing. But it also felt like the voice of a universal consciousness, speaking through a machine. It reminded me of the otherworld poetry that is broadcast through the car radio to Orpheus in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée. It was light and charming to start with – like when the machine gave a long list of instructions, ordering the boy and girl to pose in a variety of ways – for ‘a holiday snap’, ‘like porn stars’ (and we all laughed). But then it asked them to pose ‘like newlyweds’, then ‘like two people deeply in love’, and at that point, they both stopped posing and stared sadly down at the ground, like they wanted to play the game, but they just couldn’t because it seemed to hurt them too much, in a moment that made you wonder about their real relationship and which was quietly heartbreaking.
Towards the end, when the show’s main metaphor was dyed deeply in itself, and the words from the karaoke machine felt like the pure, abstract sublime, and beyond theatre somehow, the words that appeared on the screen were ‘I love you’, and then repeated again, ‘I love you’, and then repeated again, ‘I love you’. And even though it was (just) theatre, I felt loved, truly, simply by the air around me, the world around me.
(I found love in all of the worlds at the festival – they all cracked open at some point to reveal that love was at their core, that they were spinning around love, and that love was holding all of us there like gravity.)
Afterwards, I went to the burger van parked outside the Junction’s main doors. As I was handed my hot, paper-wrapped Classic, I asked where the ketchup was. The lady in the van paused and replied politely, but with a significant look in her eye that caught my attention, ‘we’ve already put…everything on it’, and that was the first moment I realised that this burger might be special. When I took my first bite, it was confirmed: this burger was made by burger artists. There was an ideal balance of bun, perfectly seasoned (incredibly juicy) medium-rare beef, red onion, ketchup, mustard and pickle. The elements felt curated, to be quintessential but also fine. On bite 4, a thin stream of beef juice escaped the wrapping and coursed down my arm. With my consciousness totally absorbed and chewing meditatively, I walked slowly back into the Junction and got caught up in the eddying stream of people headed into the next show. I wondered if I should go in – I kind of just wanted to be alone with my burger. When I paused at the door of the theatre, the steward, my friend Lewis, noticing my furrowed, questioning brow and obsessive fixation, said, ‘it’s okay, you can take it in with you’. So I tried to lick the juice somewhat surreptitiously off my arm as I walked into J3, the studio theatre space hidden away behind the box office that most people don’t realise exists. Oh boy, did I like what happened next.
I hadn’t checked the line-up board and didn’t know what I was about to see, so I pushed my epicurean rapture to one side for a moment, swallowed, and asked the person next to me what the show was. It was called My Son and Heir by the company Search Party. I had decided not to take notes at Nightwatch for this write-up – I wanted to absorb all of the shows naturally and see what floated to the surface afterwards (and to be honest, I wanted to absorb a gentle but adequate amount of fine lager and feel free from responsibility, post-treacle tin time)…but five minutes into show, after my burger and I finished becoming one, I dove into my bag for pen and notebook and wrote My Son and Heir, OMG so fucking good!!! and started scribbling away as the show unfolded. And then the idea of writing about it didn’t feel like a chore or constraint on freedom, it felt like an act of freedom. I wanted to write, for you, the way Search Party constructed My Son and Heir for me (and also for you…even though maybe you didn’t go. But that’s okay, because I went, and I took notes).
The stage set-up for Search Party was tubular: the audience sat on either side of the room in long rows, looking across at each other, with the performance space in between. It was carpeted (in beige), with children’s toys scattered around it. At one end of the space there was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of their royal highnesses Kate, Wills and George and a small television soundlessly playing a Disney princess film. ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ by Elgar started blasting loudly and tinnily over the sound system, and then Search Party artists Pete Phillips and Jodie Hawkes walked into the warmly-lit, faux suburban living room, with Jodie in a big, white wedding dress, with layers and layers of gauzy fabric. They started playing paddle-tether-ball with each other in the middle of the space, comically, teasingly, at first, and then they started hitting harder and harder, and grunting with each hit, which escalated to deadly intensity and screaming, animal-like groans; and all of a sudden, we were at Wimbledon, and it was a hilariously satirical moment that conjured Britishness with a capital B.
The show playfully explored the fairy tale frame around the royals, Kate, Wills and baby George and the images of happy families, and, most particularly, manhood, that are soaked into our culture by the media, via the parallel story of Jodie, Pete and their baby son, born the same year as Prince George. The show modulated interestingly between different movements, from Wimbledon-reminiscent paddle-tether-ball to wedding toast monologue, to dialogue, to wordless vignettes; and it was highly, delectably entertaining throughout. I didn’t want it to end. It had the appeal of a candy-coated Hollywood vehicle that has been engineered solely to carry you to dreamland for two hours, which is evidence of pure storytelling power, but what it did with the power and humour was crack your mind open once you were laughing and in thrall to make a serious social and philosophical point.
One of the most brilliant parts of the show was a comic monologue by Jodie in the form of a wedding toast to Pete, which cycled through types of man via the media tropes used to symbolise exemplary manhood in our culture – ‘the kind of man who is…’ bearded, tough, tender, a rock musician, a knight (meanwhile, Pete’s face was obscured by a medieval knight’s helmet while he played rock guitar for us), and strong, ‘with his rough hands and dusty face…’ It built to a rousing rhetorical peak that felt on the surface like a celebration of manhood, until the sheer length of the chain of images revealed itself to be just images flickering past on the telly – just flat, surface, fictional pictures – showing these to be essentially hollow. This was contrasted with a second monologue on manhood later in the show, a ‘toast to the man of the house – the rented house’, which turned dark: into a suburban housewife’s bitter, sneering harangue of her husband for not living up to those images, bitchily saying: ‘he does this thing…he is so funny – come on, Pete, put on the dress. Come on, you do it all the time at home’. Meanwhile, Pete’s shoulders slumped and he went very still and silent, with his eyes on the floor, with occasional pained looks at Jodie; and it was really awkward and sad. There was an interesting ambiguity in the moment: it had echoes of both the story of Desmond from Ob-la-dee, Ob-la-dah, with its idea of hidden, repressed transvestism, as well as of the perceived emasculation of men from switching/sharing household roles traditionally associated with women. Then he sadly puts the dress on and starts vacuuming while the harangue goes on and moves to his ability as a father: ‘What sort of father would do it like that? Where are the boys’ toys, Pete? Why is he so lazy and so selfish, Pete? Why isn’t he in private school, Pete? Why isn’t he in a field galloping around on his own fucking pony, Pete? What about Spanish lessons, Pete? What do you do all day, Pete? Why doesn’t he listen to you, Pete?’ and then, screamed, ‘Why aren’t you getting it right, Pete?!’ Then it feels like she breaks out of the theatre, out of the role, and walks around muttering.
I found the way the show explored manhood, and the ‘kind of man’ men seem to be on the surface and feel expected to be by society, poignant and fascinating; and it drew out, and felt based upon, the artists’ very real anxiety about the ‘kind of man’ Jodie and Pete’s real son would grow up to be. After Jodie’s sneering monologue/toast, Pete took off his dress and gave a toast to his son. ‘…he’s going to be one of those strong, silent, don’t cry, happily-ever-after-men. He’s not going to be one of those men with power and no integrity. He’s not going to be one of those in-and-out-of-prison men, caught-on-CCTV-robbing-an-offie men. He’ll stay calm. He’s not going to be one of those aggressive men. He’s not going to be one of those in-the-car-in-the-garage-with-a-hosepipe men. One of those in-the-loft-with-a-rope-and-a-chair men, is he, Jodie? No, he’s going to be all right.’
Amongst the mirth, the toy pink castle tent, the giant silver platter filled with peas, wedding dresses, skanky, snarled Kate wigs, knight’s helmet and guitar, the booming orchestral British hymns, the processions and toasts, the fairy tales, peppa pig bubble machine and simulated cunnilingus – the heart of the show beat with naked love for Jodie and Pete’s real son. After Pete processed in a satire of a coronation, in a cape lined with Barclaycard bills, and was crowned, there was one final monologue from Jodie about their son: ‘We have nothing for him. There’s nothing for him. There’s no fucking duchy… But he can have bike rides, trips to the seaside, laughter, being chased up the stairs, games of pirate and spaceman that go on for hours, kisses, cuddles and smiles…it’s all his.’ This was really beautiful, and so tenderly said by Jodie…and I loved how in that moment, as in a lot of modern theatre, the real overlaps with the fiction. And like I said before, every theatrical world I stepped into at Nightwatch cracked open to reveal love at the heart of everything.
So…by this point (9pm), I had been soothed and gently piqued into a brighter state of being by Karaoke, I had come further back to life via a sublime hamburger, had soaked up every crackling, rich, joyous bit of the excellent My Son and Heir, had two Leffe’s steeping happily in my blood, and now it was time for my own friend’s show, This is How We Die by Christopher Brett Bailey. It would be an interesting fulfilment of the pattern set in motion in this paragraph, and the narrative arc of the essay, for Chris’s show to combine mind-bending poetry, sublimity, and joyous theatrical excellence in a highlight performance of the whole festival for me…and – although not fulfilling patterns and playfully departing from narrative tradition is what modern theatre excels at - that’s what happened next.
The crowd was back in the J2 theatre for this one, and it was interesting to sense the space rising up two stories above us to the balcony, and stretching behind the stage all the way back to a black-painted wall, in contrast to the smaller studio of J3. Chris appeared in a retro Americana western button-down shirt with flat mother of pearl buttons and took a seat at a smallish wooden table, upon which rested a sheaf of papers. His hair, as previously mentioned, hovered. The stage around him was dark, and he sat in a spotlight. It had the feel of being his own writing desk in his bedroom somewhere in London, and as though we were voyeurs in the process that happens between his mind and the empty page.
He picked up the papers, shuffled them and started talking – really fast, and my brain had to jump and start running to keep up with the stream of motoring words. But it did – I could follow it, because the high concepts and lightning-bright poetry were wrapped around a solid, magic beanstalk core of a story that transported the imagination and pulled your attention effortlessly along with it. And he is funny – like stand-up comedy funny. (The minutes on Earth that I spend in laughter feel, um, just better than most of the other minutes. I also like minutes of sublime joy sourced from observing the beauty of life. And crystalline clarity is also nice.) So I sat quietly, radiating a lush, delighted glow in my core to be having this experience, to be absorbed in total enjoyment. And actually it is this quality, this kind of storytelling magic, that all of my favourite arts consumables have: Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hardy, Judd Apatow, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell. They all have a delicious arc that keeps you hanging from second-to-second, and spins your emotions in loops, and sometimes withholds, and sometimes satisfyingly delivers, but always keeps you pleasurably absorbed. But what was happening here during Chris’s show, and generally at the Junction during Nightwatch, was more than just absorption – it is the thing that makes the literary jewellers sit back in their chairs, take their monocle eyeglass off for a moment and decide to put a particular diamond in the ‘canon’ tray. It was fineness, a dance of idea and execution – a play of beauty, truth and philosophy deployed within virtuosic poetic or theatrical technique. I wish more people had come to see it. I wish more people understood how brilliant, appealing and rich the edges of modern theatre are right now. We’re so blessed, and the audiences are too small.
Anyway, I was there. I was absorbed. And I was having a brilliant time. Chris’s poetry is particularly vivid; he conjures an imaginary world that feels distinctly cinematic and magical, but the magic comes from metaphor: the metaphors actually come to life in the story. His fictional world is highly conscious of itself, and this meta-consciousness also seems to be conscious of itself (I guess we are living in the post-post-modern era). One of my notes was simply ‘metametametametameta’. The story flavours are retro Americana noir, with a love story at its heart, and with embedded musings upon language, masculinity, the deconstruction of materiality, religion, sex and violence. It is told in first-person, and Chris and his narrator-hero shimmer over each other interestingly.
The story begins when our narrator meets his girlfriend at the school gate: she is dressed in black, her beehive is ‘immaculate’, and she has given up smoking and outsourced it as an activity to a mouse that sits on her shoulder, who is smoking. They go to her house for dinner, and Chris discovers that when she has said that her mother is ‘the strong, silent type’, it means that her mother is actually a body-builder who has stapled her own mouth shut, and that her father, who she has described as ‘a walking swastika’, was actually involved in a body-crushing accident and chose to have his bones re-set in the shape of a swastika. ‘You are so literal; I love that’, he thinks towards Beehive. In these living character-metaphors, there is the sense of facades peeled away to reveal the viscerality of the truth underneath. This is poetry discussing itself, and cracking open the conceptual spaces that exist between language and the realm of meaning that lies behind the symbols, the codes. It’s dark but deliciously sugar-coated by its literariness.
After dinner has been interrupted by a car crashing through the dining room wall and decapitating Beehive’s father (the car is a Volkswagon with a bumper sticker that says ‘Anti-Fascist League’), and the couple are alone again, they have an argument about the way language puts boundaries around concepts, as in the case of ‘-isms’. And here there was a virtuosic display of wordplay that kind of made my mouth hang open in respect and awe, and which ended, hilariously, childishly, rudely, with the destruction of a word and its meaning through the game of repeating it over and over until it ceases to be itself and turns into nonsense, non-sense. And the word was ‘jism’: ‘Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism. Jism.’ At this point Beehive tells our narrator to go fuck himself, and he says ‘I knew she meant this literally. So I started texting myself a couple of times a day, messages that started with “heyyyy”. I asked myself out for dinner, and when I arrived at my house, I kept myself waiting. At the restaurant, I made a lot of jokes and paid for everything, and then towards the end of the evening stared into my eyes just a second too long…’ And then follows a tenderly poetic description of wanking… I kept thinking of the surprising delicacy of the layers of elements in this performance. Because the viscerality, violence and profanity are shocking, and because they share the limelight with jokes punching your funny button delightfully all the way through, it might be easy to not particularly notice the complexity of this fabric’s weave: for example, the audience roared at this bit, and wanking is always funny, but the social observation was as fine-toothed and witty as Jane Austen, and there was a shadowing poignance in its very bravado. It was one of my favourite parts of the show.
After this, Beehive and our narrator take the money she inherits from her dead Nazi father and travel across America’s dusty route 66 in a Cadillac, pursued by a Hell’s Angel-style priest who righteously attempts to purge their sinning through violence, and who gradually morphs into a copy of Chris during their battle at a deserted gas station in the desert. I found this twinning of Chris and the Priest to be an interesting element of the show: on the surface, it is comical magical-realism and cinema-noir, but underneath it’s revelatory about my friend (and you and me): it’s symbolic of the ways we can stalk ourselves, haunt ourselves, hurt ourselves with judgement and hate. And that stirred my compassion for both of us – for me, personally, my self-judgement has been strangling my ability to write, and I had been locked in a pretty vicious and depressing battle in the two weeks leading up to the show.
This is How We Die has some of the crashing, epic feel of The Odyssey and Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra, but mixed with a childish/serious, Bill Hicks kind of dark irreverence. It is profane and blasphemous – the priest’s car has a metal hood ornament in the shape of Jesus, who comes to life and wanks during the violent battle of sin-purging between Christ and Priest Chris – but the profanity contains a sacred-feeling contemplation of itself: it asks, ‘What am I?’, ‘Where are my edges?’ and ‘Am I word, a concept, a slippery, spiralling meaning?’ The story’s metaphors are laden with echoing corridors leading off to various nuances and subtleties, so the poetry feels LOUDER from all its echoes. They resonate in the background like chords accompanying the moving melody of the surface story. The themes in the corridors were many: the edges words, concepts and material reality, the edges or particulation of selves – the way our selves can feel fragmented and dual – the way language defines being, the destruction of concepts and paradigms via the deconstruction of language, and the processing that transforms one state of being into another. The echoes and tremors from the subterranean activity under the language and story gradually felt louder and increasing in intensity and complexity…
And then the story ends because the language…b r e a k s, the stage goes black, and Chris disappears into the darkness behind the desk.
Then music – heavy, metal, classical chords – starts grinding out from the darkness, and car headlights on the stage floor switch on and beam out into the audience, so we were caught in pure sound and pure glare. It felt like an exhilarated expression of ‘fuck the fucking boundaries in this fucking language…only music can say what I need to say now.’ And the music, like the literary tonality of the story, was a mix of ancient and modern on an epic scale, with electric guitars and strings and long, slow, sublimely beautiful chords; and it was really, really fucking loud. And then it got louder. The music was so loud you could feel it physically as vibration in your body, and I felt it most in my heart. It felt like the sound and beauty was actually transforming my heart into a different state of being itself. I started to feel a pure, ferocious joy. The lights dimmed for just a moment at one point, to reveal the musicians standing behind the lights, and then came back – and I loved this flickering moment that reminded me that artists were engineering this experience. As it went on, and the joy arrived, and I could feel the end of the piece approaching, I knew I wanted to jump to my feet and yell out my thanks, clap and stomp and whistle, and I wondered about the other people, but didn’t care; but then it ended, and we all went crazy.
Having this experience at Nightwatch and seeing how small the audience was, even though the Guardian’s uber-critic Lyn Gardner picked the festival as the best theatre event nationwide for the weekend, made me think about ancient Greek tragedy, and how theatre-going for 4th century BCE Athenians was a sacred event. The whole city of Athens attended the drama competitions as a part of the Festival of Dionysus, and theatre was recognised for its power to move souls and ‘accomplish a catharsis of pity and fear’ (Aristotle, Poetics). This happened for me at Nightwatch – but it makes me perplexed, and a bit sad, that the Junction provided this feast of incredibly powerful and enjoyable modern theatre to the city of Cambridge, and that Cambridge chose not to come. Just sayin’.
So afterwards, I congratulated Chris in the J2 bar, and we had drinks. I chatted some more with Chris’ musicians, and then we went to see more stuff. The edges of my memories from this point onward are fluffier. I remember that around 1 a.m. we all went up to the Mezzanine level, where the arty caterers Lemonade and Laughing Gas invited us to make bread with them. They dressed us in white boiler suits and hairnets, and handed us little wands covered in thick, paint-like food dye – red, yellow, green and blue – to flick into the mix, and we kneaded bright-coloured bread. But they were playing excellent dance music, and we kept neglecting our work to dance to the sick beats like derelict oompa-loompahs.
Then at 2.30am we went to see Ann Liv Young (hot performance art import from the New York scene – everyone was buzzing about her), and her show Us was great…it was set in an Emo poetry class and explored friendships between outcasts. It was a breath of culture from America that reminded me that it’s harder to be different there. It’s one of the reasons I can’t live there anymore. You have to be strong to resist the bullying demand to conform to a painfully unhealthy mainstream way of living and being. There were enjoyably slippery edges of nuance in the show, and like my other favourite work, it wrapped me around with its story and was extremely enjoyable – even the part where she and her best friend took a shit in a couple of buckets and then started flinging it at the crowd. Ah, theatre, though!: it was applesauce, playing the role of shit. The crowd started shouting, laughing and diving for cover. Significantly, I think, this made me bond with my new mate Nicky, because we sheltered in each others’ arms. Afterwards, Ann stayed in character and sold eclectic kitsch in the theatre lobby.
Then there’s an hour or so I can’t really remember, and around 5.30am I went to the mattresses. When I lay down, I realised the room was spinning, and I debated whether I should go throw up, but during this conversation with myself, I drifted off mid-thought. I had set my alarm for 6.20, so I could see Figs in Wigs at 6.30, because I heard they were wonderful, but I woke up at 8.30 with my alarm still going off quietly under my pillow and a sleeping body next to me. I got up and wandered out, and discovered that I woke up just in time for breakfast. I was handed my bacon breakfast sandwich by Lemonade and Laughing Gas, out of a ‘hatch’ in a giant cardboard ‘breakfast machine’, and the bread was bright red. I reflected that the poor attendance numbers meant I could probably get away with drinking three glasses of strawberry juice, so I did that, and then I got a coffee from the little coffee truck that had appeared outside. Then I watched the absolutely brilliant Woman’s Hour by The Anna Williams Trust. I would like to write more about this show, but might save that for another post.
Afterwards, I wandered around and found Chris on a bench outside the sleeping area, and we had a lazy, tired, post-party chat, where we told each other stories about the night and pieced together the hazy bits, and laughed again at the funny parts. I told him that I had been asking people at breakfast about their highlights from the night before, and most people said it was his show. I knew it would mean a lot to him to hear this. And I told him that I had drifted off with the room spinning. And he said, ‘you know, what’s interesting is that the disco ball in there wasn’t spinning’, and we found it funny that for me, it was. And then he told me that when he finally crashed, the only space available was on an already-occupied mattress, and he was worried how close he had to sleep to a strange girl, and then he realised that it was me…and so he knew it was just fine, and went contentedly off to sleep. When I got up, I hadn’t realised it was him next to me. I liked that we discovered the whole, sweet story of our friends’ sleepover by piecing together our two halves.
I love being friends with Chris. He is kind and supportive, and he will occasionally start an e-mail with things like ‘yo, nigga’, which is interestingly transgressive and also funny. I remember I replied to that one with ‘hey, blood’; and I never mentioned this to him, but at that point, I stopped writing the e-mail and thought about that slang – ‘blood’: it means ‘you’re my kin – you’re mine’. I thought about how that is the thing that always makes me start crying at the end of Million Dollar Baby: the main character Maggie Fitzgerald, who is a people-less, kind, lonely, hard-working wanderer, is re-named by someone who loves her, but she doesn’t find out what her new name means until the very end: ‘Mo Cuishle’ : ‘my darling, my blood.’ It is so hard to be lonely, to wander, and then it feels so good to find your people. Because sometimes the people who are supposed to be your people, aren’t actually your people. And then you have to search and wander, sometimes for a long, long time. But you keep going, and then one day you find them.
And the thing I like about art with a story in it is the thing I like about friendship: we tell stories to each other, about each other, and the stories make the hours spinning by on this planet more magical, but they also cast light that helps us understand ourselves, and sometimes they help heal our broken parts, our broken hearts.
There is more to write about Nightwatch – it was a high-class, utterly delectable feast of modern theatre, and I’m so grateful to the two Daniels at the Cambridge Junction (Daniel Brine, Artistic Director, and Daniel Pitt, Arts Producer and lead curator of Nightwatch) for making it happen – but it’s time to wind this essay down. It’s mid-afternoon on Thursday, and you can see that my writer’s block has been, demonstrably, demolished. I think I am going to sleep now. My spider-bite is almost completely gone – it is now the size of a drop of green tea.
The night after I saw Domestic Labour: A Study in Love by Cambridge theatre company 30 Bird, I dreamed that I was holding a vacuum cleaner to my ear like a conch shell and listening for the sea…
The show begins with three women standing on the stage, each holding an upright vintage hoover in her arms. They were already standing there as I handed my ticket to the usher and walked to my seat, like statues witnessing the busy scene of the audience filling the theatre. Then the house lights darkened, the stage lights came up, and music began to play as the women started moving. The music reminded me of Philip Glass’s opera Einstein on the Beach: it was energetic, repetitive, hypnotic, and at points, as in Glass’s work, a man’s talking voice speaking fragments of sentences appeared in the music, barely discernible. The one phrase I could make out was ‘change the sheets, 1, 2, 3, 4…’ The women were in continuous, hurried movement, cleaning the stage with cloths, carrying a multitude of props onto the stage and arranging an assorted collection of hoovers in a circular display in one corner. Then the music stopped, and they all fell down.
As you will guess from the title, one of the preoccupations of the piece was domestic labour – specifically the domestic labour expected of and performed by women. The flyer for the show said that it was ‘a love story between a man and a woman, East and West, about the mundane and the monumental, the personal and the political, the dust behind the bed, and the Iranian baby boom.’ But, to me, story felt somewhat faint as a dramatic tool in comparison to the piece’s other, more vivid theatrical elements.
The show had a rich visual language created by the movements of the three women and their interactions with props – vintage hoovers, bicycles, radiators, pith helmets, fountains of dust, bombs, a television. It was a highly abstract performance that felt almost like theatrical pointillism, and a love story did eventually emerge in the piece, but it was faintly superimposed upon the work in fragments of narrative, which slowly accumulated by the end to form a picture of a relationship between an Iranian man and an English woman.
These poetic fragments were interspersed with thoughtfully choreographed vignettes depicting the women doing highly significant things which explored the themes of the piece – they cleaned, made a dust-fountain powered by a bicycle lodged in a radiator, cleaned again, acted out underground revolt culminating in setting off a bomb, and held up a television set playing the film Johnny Guitar for long, absorbing moments. But although the marketing blurb set up an expectation in me for hearing a story about love which did not feel fulfilled, the lush, provocative abstraction of the piece created a fertile space for exploring a different theme, and the way it did so was engaging, fascinating – and fulfilling in a different way.
The issue of housework and its relationship to women – and their relationships – felt like the largest theme under contemplation by the show; this felt like the subject of the show, with love, multi-nationalism in love, parental love, Iran, and politics all sub-elements filling in the aesthetic background, and branching off from this main theme. It felt as if the flyer blurb could have said the show was about ‘the dust behind the bed, and how dust falls upon love, how it symbolises the mundane and the monumental, the personal and political…’
But here I need to depart from the frame of expectations I have set up by calling this article a ‘review’ and declare a staggering, leaning, wounded perspective surrounding my experience as a watcher of the show, and as the writer of this article. I wonder if the strength of my response to the show’s depiction of domestic labour was exaggerated – and my ability to pick up the elements of a ‘love story’ minimised – because I am a woman, and I have lived through thousands of moments of irritation at the way the boring, menial, repetitive, time-consuming chores of life are pushed disproportionately onto women. A rant is rising, which I am going to choose, thoughtfully, not to suppress:
The way advertisements for cleaning products always feature women = irritant. The phrase ‘women’s work’ = irritant. The way my ex-husband’s mother told him never to help me with the housework because it was ‘my job’ = irritant. The way the other men I have been with have also not been taught the value, practice and rhythms of keeping their environment clean by their mothers and fathers = irritant. The way these men have harboured unconscious expectations for me to do more housework than them = irritant. The history of female suppression stretching back hundreds, no, thousands, of years in our society leading up to this moment of improved but incomplete re-valuation of women, and which is symbolised by the women in the cleaning advertisements = irritant. IT’S NOT FUCKING FAIR!!!!
[Long pause for breathing]
[Still breathing, head down, hands clenching each other]
These moments have accumulated like dust in my psyche…so perhaps I was watching the show through a dusty lens. Domestic Labour: A Study in Love was written by a man, Merhdad Seyf, which I didn’t realise until after the show. I didn’t know the gender of the name ‘Merhdad’, and I assumed it was written by a woman. And this made me wonder if Mehrdad also wrote the marketing blurb, and if through his eyes, the show was more about love than it was about dust.
To me, this is an interesting question, which is about the power and purpose of theatre and the way conscious and unconscious elements dance with each other in the artistic imagination.
The show’s flyer lists a historical consultant, Dr Lucy Delap, who collaborated with the piece, and her area of research is domestic labour, so it is clear that the intense statement of the dust theme – through music, props, movement, title, script – was highly conscious. But I kept wondering about the inability of the love theme to reach me through all of the dust. I wanted to hear about love; my expectations were primed for love by the flyer — I love hearing about love…but all I could hear, care about, or engage with during and after the show was the dust.
I wonder, with a fervent wish to honour Merhdad as a male artist who has made a powerful piece of theatre about the stifling of feminine power by domestic labour, whether the love theme of the piece was intended to shine more brightly out of it than it did to me. I wonder if in Merhdad’s psyche and imagination, the luminance of the love theme has a different relationship with dust, and whether Merhdad has less dust in his psyche, because he is a man. I wonder how conscious or unconscious most men are of the accumulated dust in women’s psyches around this question. It can be difficult to truly grasp the extent of psychic damage done to someone else by an experience if you haven’t experienced it yourself – however, it is extremely encouraging that men are beginning to ask, to enquire about this, to imagine, empathise, create around this issue.
It is probably my own psychic woundedness that craves full empathy, and feels suspicious about Merhdad’s ability to truly feel how I feel… But then, I am white, and Merhdad is Iranian. So, we are all on a merry-go-round of experience with different elements, different potential vulnerabilities to unconsciously embedded patterns of suppression or hurts in society, like female suppression, or racism. From this whirling vantage point, it feels easier to simply thank him for caring, for asking, for creating, and to see him, rather than as a man or Iranian, as an Artist.
And aside from those (unanswerable) questions, the show affected me very powerfully. It was Good Art. It totally absorbed me, and I enjoyed the absorption. It was deliciously poetically abstract, which allowed for questions to be thrown into the air, like the dust fountain from the bicycle, and they were important questions: How have women been affected by domestic labour? How has love between men and women been affected by it? How dusty are we all? What would love between men and women be like, if we cleaned our long, sad history of female suppression off of it? This last question is the one I wonder most deeply about…as I wrote at the beginning, the night after I saw the show, I dreamed that I was holding a vacuum cleaner up to my ear like a conch shell and listening for the sea.