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.