Encountering States of Mind


“Our sense of time is an arrow, moving in a pitiless, irreversible, horizontal motion towards oblivion, but in truth we don’t really know what time is.” Marcus du Sautoy

Louis Darget took photographs of thoughts. At the turn of the twentieth century, Darget pressed unexposed plates to the foreheads of his subjects, hoping to capture some fleeting substance of consciousness in visual form. James Roberts suggests that the resulting images – abstract, murky, inconclusive – are “articles of faith – expressions of a desire for the existence of another dimension”.

Darget’s photographs, like most of the items in the Wellcome Collection’s States of Mind exhibition, are art and science and faith and philosophy all at once. You need imagination, after all, to push at the boundaries of the known. There are intricate, spidery drawings of neural pathways; a visual representation of Nabokov’s synaesthetic alphabet; artists’ vivid impressions of nightmares and altered states. From the concept of the soul to the boundaries of sleep and memory, it’s a fascinating and occasionally terrifying meditation on what we know – or, in most cases, don’t know – about the workings of our own minds.

Because thoughts, as Darget found, are slippery things. They evade the fixity of photographer’s film or scientist’s lab. At once clinging to and unmoored from our own individual senses of self, we all know and yet don’t know what it really means to be conscious, to form thoughts, to move through time.

The Encounter is a mind-altering piece of theatre. It’s hallucinatory, disorientating, synapse-fizzing stuff. Yet Simon McBurney gives away its game right at the beginning. Engaging in deceptively simple ‘pre-show’ chitchat, he tells us that everything is a fiction. Certainly everything we’re about to see and hear is, even if it’s based on real events. The solid certainties of our existence, the things we live and die and kill for, are all just collective fictions. Stories. As present and yet as intangible as the wisps of thought snatched at by Darget.

McBurney’s show prods at those shared fictions: time, perception, faith. It is, first of all, a stunning piece of storytelling. Using sense-tricking binaural technology, McBurney and sound designer Gareth Fry build a rich, multi-layered soundscape, transporting us to a rainforest that is patently absent from the wide, sparse, yawning stage at the Barbican. The trickery is right there in front of us, exposed with no apology, but our ears say otherwise. We see a microphone, bottles of water, a box full of recording tape; we hear the chirping and humming and rustling of an entire ecosystem.

The rainforest is in the Amazon. The year is 1969 and our protagonist is Loren McIntyre, an explorer in search of the Mayoruna people. He finds them, but loses his fragile grasp on modern civilisation in the very same moment. Excitedly following the tribe, he forgets to mark the route back to his camp. Plunged into the depths of the jungle and soon stripped of both his camera and his watch, he becomes entirely dependent on the Mayoruna, a people with whom he shares no means of verbal communication. McIntyre is cut off from both time and language – two of the compasses by which we navigate our sense of ourselves and the world around us.

The Encounter is, at one level, “about” McIntyre’s experiences with the Mayoruna and his brief dislodging from the passage of time as most of us know it. But it operates on multiple other levels simultaneously. At the same time as The Encounter is a show about McIntyre and the Mayoruna, it is also a show about McBurney making a show about McIntyre and the Mayoruna (got it?). And it’s a show, too, about time, sensation and consciousness – the very fabric of human experience. McBurney, like the Wellcome Collection, is interested in states of mind.

One section of the Wellcome Collection exhibition that (ironically) lodged itself in my mind and niggled away there was artist A. R. Hopwood’s False Memory Archive. For the last four years, Hopwood has been collecting false memories from members of the public. He says that submissions to the archive tend to follow a pattern: “a memory is described, only to be undone by evidence that the recollection is faulty or by a suspicion that the experience never actually happened”. The memories themselves are usually vivid, despite being known to be impossible.

The memories in the archive range from the hilarious (“I remember running away from the hospital as a newborn baby”) to the faintly disturbing (“I always think I have a little sister that I love so much. And I can feel her presence”). But what’s terrifying, even reading the funnier submissions, is how flimsy our grip on our own past is. Memories are all that root us to time (we can only conceive of a present and a future if we possess a past) and to our sense of self (we are, clichéd though the saying may be, the sum of our experiences). So if our memories so frequently fail us, what do we have left?

Memory and time are both in flux in The Encounter. For McIntyre, his experiences with the Mayoruna lift him out of time, or perhaps just into a different relationship with it. The people of the tribe, who recognise the growing threat to their way of life from the destruction wreaked by oil giants, seek to return to “the beginning”: a time before the white man, before the deforestation, before what we call modernity.

McBurney is also tussling with time. Speaking to us, he is both now and not now. We hear his voice speaking to us from stage and speaking to us from the past in a series of recordings. These recordings overlap with other voices from the past: experts on time, people who knew McIntyre, and – most strikingly – McBurney’s (then) five-year-old daughter, who keeps interrupting him during a sleepless night while making the show. By layering those voices on top of one another, like the sounds of the rainforest, they become an indistinguishable hubbub, evoking the way in which we often experience memories. Just the odd thing jumps out: a sentence here, an idea there.

Listening to Tim Bano’s brilliant audio review of the show, there was one thing that struck me – or one thing that protrudes, several days later, from my unreliable memory of it. The podcast is framed as a conversation between two selves: his present (now, of course, past) self two weeks after seeing The Encounter, and his past self sitting in the auditorium watching the show. Reflecting on this situation, Tim describes all the past versions of himself as distant and inaccessible – as separate from who he is now as any stranger.

It’s that impossibility of really knowing ourselves, our minds, our memories that resonates in both the States of Mind exhibition and The Encounter. I’m also reminded during The Encounter of Greg Wohead’s exquisite, dizzying Hurtling, which meditates on the impossibility of ever truly being in the present. There’s something in that piece about our minds connecting, catching up, so that we can never be truly present to ourselves. In The Encounter, that feeling is amplified (quite literally, in the case of the sound): we have to connect moments in time and disparate voices; we are always coping with the incommensurability of the sounds in our ears, the images forming in our minds, and the contrasting bareness of the stage in front of us. We are – like McBurney, like everyone all the time – all forming our own fictions.

“I am convinced that great works of art tell us about shape-shifting, about both the world and ourselves as more mobile, more misperceived, more dimensional beings, than science or our senses would have us believe.” Arnold Weinstein

If everything is fiction, there’s still a question of whose fictions get told. Just a couple of days after seeing The Encounter, still vibrating with its sensations and ideas, I was stopped in my tracks by Stewart Pringle’s review on Exeunt. He describes the show as “an absolutely spectacular and absolutely state-of-the-art framework for one of the oldest colonial narratives – the white man’s journey into the unknown”. Oof. Am I so inured to the white male perspective, so adept at translating the “universal”, “neutral” narratives of white masculinity into my own experience, that the more troubling aspects of McBurney’s show just passed me by?

Writing this, I’m thinking about the awards fuss around The Revenant, and about how little of a shit I give about it. Hearing about the film – even hearing glowing reports of it – I just keep thinking about how done I am with stories of heroic white men on quests for survival, asserting their masculinity along the way. Even Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is framed in those terms: as an act of endurance. As Mark Kermode put it, discussing Leo’s chances in the (of course) overwhelmingly white-and-male ceremony of self-congratulation that is the Oscars, “Academy voters like to see their actors suffer”.

But then, I fretfully ask myself, is The Encounter really all that different? Do I just ignore its reproduction of a dominant white, male perspective because I’m blinded by its art? I’m still not entirely sure. Annegret Maerten, though, makes an interesting counter-argument to Stewart’s. She argues that, thanks to the use of technology and the multi-layered, many-times-mediated storytelling, The Encounter in fact makes a point of and problematises the positioning of the (white, male) artist. She concludes that “it’s stunning and exhausting and baffling but it’s most definitely not unexamined privilege or racist (if well-meant) stereotyping”.

I still wonder about the voices of the Mayoruna in this show; about the fact that it is first McIntyre and then McBurney – powerful white men venturing boldly into the unknown – who carry and relay those voices. Whether or not McBurney’s storytelling needs reexamining, though, The Encounter does at least make us alert to the importance of the fictions we tell and the ways in which we tell them. The show closes (spoiler alert!) with McBurney reading to his daughter from Petru Popescu’s Amazon Beaming, the book about McIntyre’s journey on which The Encounter is based. The story he reads aloud is the story of the Mayoruna’s origins, passed down from generation to generation, and then passed from the Mayoruna to McIntyre to Popescu to McBurney. And now McBurney is telling it, in the fashion of a bedtime story, to a new generation. They may be fictions, as fragile as the foundations of our thoughts, but the stories we tell still matter.

Louis Darget's photographs.
Louis Darget’s photographs.

Cleansed, National Theatre


There’s a moment in Greg Wohead’s show The Ted Bundy Project when the whole audience holds its breath. We’re watching a video – a video that Wohead has already described at (horrifying) length – and we’re wondering if Wohead – lovely, affable, smiling Wohead – is really about to show us this. He wouldn’t, would he? I stare at the screen, feeling slightly sick, yet unable to wrench my gaze away. I can’t stop watching.

“It’s hard to watch,” writes Natasha Tripney of Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. “Yet here we are, watching.” There’s a similar sense of suspended breath in the Dorfman auditorium. I suspect that many of us know, or at least half know, what to expect from Sarah Kane’s play, first staged at the Royal Court in 1998. We have chosen to be here. And we choose to remain in our seats, looking on as horrible things happen to the bodies on stage. What makes us watch? And how, as we watch, do we make sense of what we see?

The first question, perhaps, is what are we seeing? Both Kane’s play and Mitchell’s production make that a difficult question to answer. In both, very specific scenes of torture and tenderness sit within a strange, abstract world. Tom Mothersdale’s Tinker, sadistic and self-loathing, rules over an institution of some kind, where he torments and experiments on a series of subjects: siblings Graham (Graham Butler) and Grace (Michelle Terry), lovers Carl (Peter Hobday) and Rod (George Taylor), and an illiterate boy named Robin (Matthew Tennyson, bringing extraordinary gentleness to this cruel world). What we as an audience experience is more a series of brutal and beautiful impressions than a linear, coherent narrative.

Cleansed_Peter Hobday

Several reviews of Cleansed (both negative and positive) have listed the violence: litanies of horrors laid out for the reader like a catalogue of cruelty. Quentin Letts even offers the exact timings of each instance of torture. But violence is more than just the blows of a fight or the blast of a gun. It’s more than the blood and gore which have dominated press coverage of this revival (along with the depressingly predictable headlines reporting audience members fainting and walking out – presumably not at the same time) – and which, in any case, I was braced for as I tentatively took my seat.

Yes, it’s often difficult to watch. Yes, certain scenes of torture and mutilation – described in (sometimes problematic) detail elsewhere, so I won’t repeat the fetishisation of that represented violence again here – make me curl my hands into fists or send them flying to my mouth. But there’s also violence in the constant ringing of bells and the smooth wheeling in of gurneys. It’s the casual, precise, institutionalised horror of it all that strikes me as most violent. It’s the plastic sheets and pristine black suits.

Perhaps the cruelest moment of the production is when, having force-fed Robin a box of chocolates, Tinker gleefully peels away a sheet of cardboard to reveal another sickly layer beneath. He picks up each individual chocolate with a long pair of tongs, careful not to get his hands dirty. Rooted to my seat – eyes held open, muscles clenched – I shiver.


I could write about Cleansed purely in images. Grace trapped in dreamlike incomprehension on the stairs, her red dress a vivid splash of colour against her grubby, washed-out surroundings. Rod and Carl frozen in a kiss as Grace’s arm slowly snakes between them. A slow-motion mockery of a funeral, as faceless figures glide across the stage clutching lilies and umbrellas. The daffodils that sprout, suddenly, through the floor. A series of embraces: tender, fierce, bodies briefly moving as one. Carl’s silent scream as he’s wheeled backwards on a gurney. Grace dancing to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, at first a mirror image of Graham, later alone and compulsively, limbs animated with a mixture of horror and joy.

My use of the word “dreamlike” feels apt, as Mitchell’s production is more like a dream than anything else. It’s a nightmare, often, with its shadowy figures and soundless howls. But it also has the vivid strangeness of all dreams, that sense of a world slightly off-kilter. Mitchell (supported by Joseph Alford’s brilliantly controlled movement direction) has slowed everything down to a pace that feels almost outside of time, punctuated with moments of frenetic activity. Nothing quite operates as we expect it to here. Bodies slow and quicken. Plants burst through floor tiles. The seamless combination of Paul Clark’s music and Melanie Wilson’s sound design, meanwhile, generates a constant, queasy anxiety.

Dan Rebellato is one of the few writers to have commented on the theatricality of Cleansed as much as on its naturalism. Many have argued that this version of Cleansed is too realistic, its rendering of violence too convincing. But it’s the hyper-naturalism of Mitchell’s approach to certain moments that creates the production’s uncanniness, its nightmarish blend of (literally) razor-sharp precision and blurry abstraction. As Rebellato puts it, “This production is both fiercely real and achingly theatrical. It’s what it is and it’s humming with metaphor.” It’s haunted by an uneasy doubleness, common to both theatre and dreams. Everything is two things at once. Dreaming and waking. Real and not real. What are we watching?

Mitchell’s production foregrounds the act of watching, of bearing witness. Throughout, we watch Grace watching; she is a constant presence, hovering on the edges of every scene. While the performances are uniformly excellent, it’s Terry as Grace who is utterly unforgettable. Perhaps it’s because we repeatedly see her, rooted to the spot, watching as we watch. In the very first scene she appears frozen to the staircase in the centre of the stage, unable to wrench her feet from where they’re planted, paralysed as if in a nightmare. And it makes you wonder – this constant, almost invisible presence – whether we should indeed read it all as a horrific dream.

There’s more to Grace’s watchful presence, though, than a straightforward framing of the events as a nightmare. By adding an observer, Mitchell throws light on the process of observing. Tinker, too, is often looking on, but his is a different kind of watching. He’s the sinister voyeur – never more so than when watching a peep show, whose performer seems to both attract and repel him. Terry’s Grace, meanwhile, often looks on with tormented compassion, yet able only to helplessly witness. These are our models for watching, making us aware of our own, far from passive involvement as audience members.

“Picture this,” sings a child’s voice in an unsettling rendition of Blondie’s song (just one in a series of inspired musical choices). It’s an invitation to our imaginations, as is Mitchell’s production, even with all its naturalistic touches. There is still, for all the realistic gore, a mental leap. There’s also a choice: a choice to keep watching, like Grace, or to avert our eyes. Why can’t we look away?


At home I have a book full of photographs of abandoned spaces. Barren post-industrial landscapes. Forsaken monuments to forgotten powers. Paint peeling from walls and weeds nudging through cracks. The beauty of their decay is breathtaking. I feel uncomfortably drawn to these ruins, perhaps in the same way I feel drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction. There’s something morbidly fascinating about visions of a world that has left us behind. I also think, as I devour image after crumbling image, how brilliant these would be as stage designs.

Alex Eales’ design for Cleansed could be right out of that book. Kane’s script famously specifies a university – a place of learning become a place of torture – but Mitchell and Eales make this institution much more vague. It could just as easily be a hospital – another ironic reversal that finds its echo in the repeated description of Tinker as a ‘doctor’. There are signs on the walls, but these are the only vestiges of its previous use, relics from another era. Time and nature are gnawing away at this place; the walls are shedding their skin of paint, while bare, spindly trees thrust up through the rotting floor. Dirt and rust and mould are creeping in.

Yet it’s beautiful. And as with those photographs, that’s where the difficulty lies. I’m troubled less by the violence in Cleansed (though it is troubling) than by the extreme beauty I find in it. To what end do we aestheticise acts of cruelty and sites of decay? The question of violence on stage is one that persistently nags at me, and one to which I have no easy answer. Even when cloaked in metaphor, the problem doesn’t disappear. Because those metaphors – Ellen McDougall’s bursting balloons in Henry the Fifth, or the oozing bags of ink in Dan Hutton’s take on The Spanish Tragedy – are beautiful too.

As a challenge, though, Cleansed is vivid and confronting and hauntingly memorable. Kane’s play is known for its series of audacious images – flowers bursting from nowhere, rats carrying off severed body parts – that throw down a gauntlet for any director. It seems to me that Mitchell picks up that gauntlet and then chucks it right at us as an audience. Her images leave us feeling deeply, almost painfully, and they leave us asking the questions that keep punctuating my writing. What are we seeing? What makes us watch? Why can’t we look away? And what is it about what we are seeing that is still, in spite of everything, disturbingly beautiful?

Main photo: Stephen Cummiskey.


In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises), Gate Theatre


As a child – like so many children – I was afraid of the dark. In those long nights when I was stubbornly holding my eyes open against the threatening gloom, my mum would read to me from Martin Waddell’s Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? In the book, Little Bear doesn’t like the dark. To Big Bear’s exasperation, he won’t go to sleep at night. What is he afraid of? Big Bear asks, again and again.

“The dark all around us,” he replies.

In the Night Time (Before the Sun Rises) unfolds a little like a storybook. Even its title has a fairytale ring to it. Once upon a time, Man and Woman (nameless urban archetypes) meet. On the street, maybe, or in a bar. They go on dates. He tells bad jokes. They fall in love.

And then they have a baby. A child is born – though, Nina Segal’s play insists, this isn’t a religious story. This child is just another child. And like so many children, it cries. The newborn bawls ceaselessly through the night, driving its parents to distraction. We join them in one narrow, dark sliver of one of these sleepless nights, as fatigued desperation gives way to hallucinatory fears. Slowly, inexorably, all the terrible things happening elsewhere in the world seep through the four thin, brittle walls of the child’s bedroom.

The two sleep-deprived protagonists are at once specific and generic. They’re both invested with just enough personality that we feel we know them a bit (she believes marriage is a misogynistic institution, he smokes though he knows he shouldn’t), yet they remain blank enough for us as audience members to project something of ourselves onto them. A bit like characters in storybooks.

Segal’s dialogue oscillates between third and first person, while performers Alex Waldmann and Adelle Leonce always seem to be both in and out of character at the same time, flickering constantly between narrating and representing. It feels vital that they don’t ever become too particular, too easy to dismiss. This is not just about them, in the same way that fairytales are never just about Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. This is for all of us who have brought or will bring or might bring another human being into this world. This incredible, broken, fucked-up world.

As a teenager, I devoured dystopian fiction. I wasn’t alone. Dystopias seem to strike a chord with those trapped, awkwardly, between childhood and adulthood – perhaps, as Laura Miller suggests in the New Yorker, because “the typical arc of the dystopian narrative mirrors the course of adolescent disaffection”. In all those scorched worlds, seemingly far removed from the one I was growing up in, I found something to identify with.

Those imagined apocalypses, though, have never quite receded as I’ve got older. They remain, somewhere in my own personal store of fears, multiplied by the threats of climate change, terrorism, mutating viruses. The dark all around us.

Again, I’m not alone. In a recent essay on Aeon, Frank Bures argues that the apocalypse has never been easier to imagine in the hyper-connected world that we currently live in, but that it’s also an age-old anxiety. “The apocalypse wasn’t coming,” he realises. “It was always with us.”

In Blasted, a war zone explodes into a Leeds hotel room, violence tearing through Western comfort and complacency. Though In the Night Time owes a considerable debt to Sarah Kane’s play, here the domestic chaos of the child’s bedroom is never completely ruptured by the horrors beyond its walls. Instead they intrude and then recede, and then intrude and recede again.

It’s a small space, the stage at the Gate, and director Ben Kidd exploits that. It easily becomes one of the too-small rented flats that families squeeze into across this city, filled with accumulating stuff. At the start of the show, the two characters and all the detritus of their lives are wrapped up in clingfilm. Tearing through this plastic membrane, birthed into the performance space, Waldmann and Leonce begin to construct the fragile lives of their characters. A picture frame here, a string of fairy lights there. All the things that we invest with the meaning of a relationship.

With a child, of course, comes more stuff. Even the baby itself, a plastic doll with a flashing alarm in its head, arrives in an Amazon box. And littered with all the familiar junk of infancy – nappies and bottles and plastic, so much plastic – the stage already begins to take on a disordered, calamity-hit aesthetic, while the two parents circle one another like enemies in a war of their own. All it then takes to bring fears of conflict, crisis and disease crashing into the room is for this precariously constructed space to collapse entirely, possessions flying like shrapnel.

“The two things are not connected,” the characters repeat again and again about different events – an insistent and increasingly desperate refrain. Of course, it only reinforces the reality that they are. Somewhere, far away, people are dying. Here, in a rented flat in an overpriced city, parents are placating their screaming child with “plastic sacrifices”. The two things are connected. Comfort in one part of the world depends on suffering elsewhere.

Bures suggests that now, in the globalised twenty-first century, the nature of our apocalyptic visions has changed:

“Today our fears are broader, deeper, woven more tightly into our daily lives, which makes it feel like the seeds of our destruction are all around us. We are more afraid, but less able to point to a single source for our fear. At the root is the realisation that we are part of something beyond our control.”

This pervasive, unsettling fear is what reverberates through Escaped Alone, Caryl Churchill’s latest, compellingly strange play at the Royal Court, and it’s also what reverberates through In the Night Time. The Man and Woman feel acutely that imminent destruction is everywhere around them, but they feel powerless to fix whatever it is that has broken. Catastrophe and everyday life, meanwhile, are so closely knitted together that neither can overcome the other. The war zone never obliterates the child’s bedroom. The end of the world is both there and not there.

The apocalypse isn’t coming. It’s always with us.

As an adult, inching ever closer to 30, it starts to feel as though babies are everywhere. Facebook is suddenly full of them: a whole timeline of chubby cheeks and dimpled smiles. Female friends without kids begin, for the first time, to plan their lives within a slim reproductive window. At the same time, news headlines seem to scream the foolishness of bringing a child into a world fraught with so much violence and crisis and pain. Still, there’s only so much time, the world keeps reminding us. Tick tock. Better make your mind up.

Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs cleverly stretched out one couple’s conversation about whether or not to bring a child into the world, revealing how a private decision is also one of agonisingly public responsibility. What justification can there possibly be for placing another carbon footprint on an already overburdened planet? In the Night Time is, in some ways, the “after” version of that play. This couple have already had a child – “for all the right reasons,” they assure us – but are left wondering if in fact they’ve made a terrible mistake.

Both play and production occasionally strain this point. The repetitive rhythms of the play’s speech are apt, echoing both storybook narrative convention and the circular arguments of denial that so often greet situations of crisis, but they can also begin to grate. After the first wave of chaos, meanwhile, the staging gives itself few places to go. Waldmann and Leonce must simply pick their way through the plastic rubble of the set, an image that gradually loses its power as the piece goes on and the momentum begins to slow. With the exception of a tinny chorus of toy sounds, playfully reinforcing the ridiculousness of this plastic shrine the two characters have erected to their child, the second half of Kidd’s production never quite matches up to the first.

In its evocation of present anxieties, though, In the Night Time is pretty damn potent. I might not have a child of my own, or be thinking about bringing one into the world any time soon. But those fears, that feeling that we inhabit a broken world and that – even worse – we are all selfishly failing to fix it, get me right between the ribs. Segal and Kidd manage to create the uneasy feeling that apocalypse is always right round the corner and that we as flawed human beings are each at once responsible and helpless. In the end, the show suggests, all we can really do is confront that dark all around us, waiting and hoping for the dawn to break.

Photo: Bill Knight.

Tipping the Velvet, Lyric Hammersmith


Note: an incredibly late response to this production, appearing so long after the show’s run because I submitted it for the Observer Anthony Burgess Competition (which, needless to say, it wasn’t shortlisted for).

“This is not how the show ends!” So goes the protest of the music hall MC in the closing scene of Tipping the Velvet, the Lyric Hammersmith’s knowingly theatrical stage adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel. David Cardy’s mansplaining cockney narrator is finally having his control challenged by Nancy Astley, the protagonist whose sexual awakening he has nudged and winked his way through for the last three hours. She has some problems with his telling and she’s ready – finally – to answer back. So who owns this story?

Writer Rebecca Solnit, weaver of her own exquisite stories, describes a book as “a heart that only beats in the chest of another”. Without the lifeblood of readers pumping through them, novels are just so many empty ventricles. Since its publication in 1998, Tipping the Velvet has pulsed beneath the ribs of millions of readers. The heart metaphor, indeed, seems especially apt for a novel that means so much to so many. A landmark in lesbian fiction, Waters’ tale of an imagined queer subculture glittering beneath the soot and grime of Victorian London has countless ardent fans.

It’s easy to see why the story of oyster girl turned music hall star Nancy has become so fiercely beloved. Tipping the Velvet is a sumptuous, enveloping read, packed with both period detail and lush imaginative embellishment. At the novel’s opening, Nancy is leading a drab, ordinary life in Whitstable, working in her parents’ oyster parlour and spending evenings with a local beau. Then, one night at the music hall in Canterbury, she sees Kitty Butler, a male impersonator or “masher”. It’s love – and lust – at first sight. In the course of a musical number, Nancy’s life is transformed.

Nancy’s infatuation is as much with the greasepaint and glamour of the music hall as it is with the gender-bending Kitty. And it’s this aspect of the novel that playwright Laura Wade and director Lyndsey Turner have seized on in adapting it for the stage. It makes sense: relocating a narrative to the theatre, why not emphasise its already theatrical elements? So Nancy’s journey of self-discovery becomes a series of music hall acts, ranging from the colourful to the ridiculous, all firmly rooted in the Lyric’s own music hall past.

There’s always been a hint of the fantastical to Tipping the Velvet. Waters herself describes the book as her “attempt to write a Victorian-style novel telling a very lesbian story in a way that was half-authentic but half-anachronistic too”. It’s semi-historical fiction: a sexy twentieth-century riff on lavish Victorian storytelling. Dickens with dildos. Nancy herself, meanwhile, is a chameleonic figure, forever shrugging on a new performance as changing circumstances demand.

It’s wise, then, to approach her tale with some fictional flourish. Gritty realism was never going to serve this narrative well, so it’s for the best that Wade and Turner, along with designer Lizzie Clachan, have embraced a more flamboyant approach, decorating the drama with gaudy painted backdrops and circus acrobatics. But Waters’ novel is no straightforward carnivalesque romp. It’s not with sex or spectacle alone that a novel steals its way into readers’ hearts. Nancy’s story is also passionate and heartbreaking, full of all the giddy vertigo and crushing despair of first love. It is as devastating as it is joyous.

The Lyric’s production, though, has only the one tone. That’s the problem with music hall: it’s designed as a vehicle for broad comedy and thigh-slapping entertainment. But emotional nuance? Not so much. It’s a form – with its insistent gags and relentless visual humour – that demands we laugh. When the object of that laughter is a tender, tentative relationship between two women, though, it’s uncomfortable at best and wildly offensive at worst.

The form also makes it tough to care about its characters. Nancy’s yearning, hot and urgent, should be palpable. In this version, though, Sally Messham – excellent in every other respect – struggles to reach across the gulf opened up by the production’s self-conscious style of choice. Her Nancy, at once bold and tremulous, contains just the right blend of naivety and defiance, but she is forever kept at one remove from the audience. Her romances, first with Laura Rogers’ self-assured and ambitious Kitty and later with socialist force of nature Florence (a no-nonsense yet soft-centred Adelle Leonce), are oddly distant.

There is, admittedly, fun to be had in this adaptation. At times rivalling the Lyric’s much-loved pantomime, the music hall turns deploy their share of ingenuity in moving the narrative forward. Nancy’s breathless journey to London, where she follows rising star Kitty as her dresser and later her fellow performer, is all conveyed through a busy chorus of voices and sound effects; the two women’s hesitant attraction is a tiptoeing dance of suppressed flirtation. For the music itself, Victorian favourites are traded for music hall arrangements of the likes of Prince’s “Kiss” and Miley Cyrus’s infamous “Wrecking Ball”, recalling the a capella numbers that Turner memorably inserted into Wade’s earlier play Posh and wittily filtering the past through the present.

But by forcing Tipping the Velvet into this tight music hall frame, Wade and Turner have smashed it into troublingly small fragments. Each miniature scene whisks past before it can have any real impact, sticking around only as long as it takes to deliver a punchline. Unlike the intense, confessional prose of Waters’ novel, this is a frustratingly interrupted narrative. More worryingly, the curtains have a habit of swishing closed right at the moment the female characters are nearing intimacy. When we do get lesbian sex, it’s studiedly metaphorical: performers twirl and sway in coy aerial acts. The implicit message is that this desire is to be hidden, kept safely behind curtains or cloaked in metaphor.

Most problematic of all is the leering, ever-present master of ceremonies, doling out enforced jollity regardless of the emotional tenor of the drama. Brandishing his gavel – regularly employed to stop and start the action – Cardy’s narrator is two parts East End geezer, one part sleazy uncle. His telling of Nancy’s Sapphic adventures is painfully patronising, enclosing everything on stage within the voracious male gaze. There is a purpose to this, establishing a dominant framework in order to eventually dismantle it. But why can’t this female narrative, told by a female creative team, reject patriarchal frameworks entirely?

Solnit has another startling metaphor for stories. They are “compasses and architecture, we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice”. By insisting on the music hall framing, Wade and Turner have robbed Nancy of her story. She’s left without direction or shelter, stumbling blindly through act after whimsical act.

The production’s nadir coincides with Nancy’s – though not in the way its creators might have intended. Betrayed by Kitty and utterly bereft, our protagonist trudges aimlessly through the streets of London, suddenly finding herself amid the meat and guts of Smithfield Market. In the novel, this is a moment of complete, all-consuming despair. On stage, by contrast, Nancy is hauled up in a harness, dangling alongside a row of puppet pig carcasses for a musical number that nudges the ridiculous into the realm of the offensive. It’s greeted not with empathy for the character’s suffering, but with muffled snorts of embarrassment.

So, again, whose story is this? You can tell a lot about a narrative from its ending. Waters’ novel closes with “a rising ripple of applause”, as though in the quiet contentment that Nancy finds with Florence she has finally stepped onto the right stage and into the right story. At the Lyric, on the other hand, Nancy wrestles back her story with just enough time to hide it away again, as the heavy velvet curtain falls on her and Flo’s private happiness. Wade and Turner do at least problematise the fashion of their storytelling, but Nancy is granted only enough narrative agency to bring about her own disappearance. And that, ultimately, is the most worrying music hall turn of them all: the vanishing act.

Looking Back: 2015


It began with a bull fight. Mike Bartlett’s Bull at the Young Vic – a horrifying image of bloodthirsty corporate competition – was the first show of 2015 to really kick me in the gut. And it kicked hard. I might have had my problems with it, but the image of those three suit-clad figures circling one another, shiny and hard as Soutra Gilmour’s arena-shaped design, stayed with me. Right at the start of a new year, it was a brutal, damning perspective on the state of things.

But 2015’s theatre wasn’t all grim. Now, at the end of the year, the arrival of Megan Vaughan’s fantastic zine reminds me how many of the shows I loved in the last twelve months were tender and intimate and exposed (in every sense of the word). Or, to put it another way, how many of those shows involved nudity (no sniggering, now) not just as part of the plot, but as an aesthetic in its own right. Bodies – uncovered, meeting, parting – were central to three of my favourite shows of the year: Peter McMaster’s 27, The Mikvah Project at The Yard and, again at The Yard, the first public incarnation of Chris Goode’s new Ponyboy Curtis ensemble. Honourable mentions too, while we’re on bodies, for Igor and Moreno’s straining calves as they unrelentingly leapt up and down in Idiot-Syncrasy, and for all those sex dolls in the Young Vic’s brilliant Measure for Measure – a production of Shakespeare’s play that, crucially, embraced rather than attempted to solve its problematic strangeness.

The health of Political Theatre (capital P, capital T) is often, for better or worse, considered a barometer for the state of the art form. In the run-up to May’s general election, some complained that the stage was offering little in the way of topical critique. (The highest profile bit of election theatre, James Graham’s The Vote at the Donmar Warehouse and streamed live on TV, was really about the quirks of British democracy, more interested in the act of putting that cross in a box rather than what the boxes themselves might stand for). But I’d argue it all depends where you were looking.

On election day itself, I found myself reflecting on the theatre that refracted politics through the (all too often difficult) lives of ordinary people: the zero-hours workers of Beyond Caring, the everyday activists of Stand, the carers who told their stories in Turning a Little Further, a gorgeous piece created as part of the Young Vic’s ongoing Two Boroughs project. Meanwhile another community show, London Bubble’s Hopelessly De-Voted, offered a multi-faceted view of the way in which the workings of democracy are viewed by and impact upon residents in its local area around Bermondsey. This theatre all served as a reminder that politics is about people, not just parties and politics.

I found out the result of the election while in Berlin, at a distance that made it feel all the more unreal. I drowned my sorrows with fellow Brits, heaving an inward sigh of relief that I was at one remove from the messy post-vote dissection. The reason for being in Berlin was Theatertreffen, a festival I’ve gazed at enviously from afar in recent years. Thanks to the online scramble for tickets, I only saw two of the selected shows in the end, but one of them remains one of the best bits of theatre I saw all year. Common Ground, a partial and fragmented account of the break-up of Yugoslavia, confronted all the tangled complication of conflict, eschewing simple narratives of right and wrong, victim and perpetrator. And somewhere in there, emerging from the wreckage, was the slightest glimmer of hope.

There was a similar kind of complication and complexity at the heart of The Beanfield, the astonishing debut show from young company Breach. It also shared with Common Ground an interest in opening up its own process, with as much interest arising from the company’s flawed documentary techniques as the subject of their investigation: The Battle of the Beanfield, when police enforced a crackdown on the annual Stonehenge Free Festival. Breach continue the current outpouring of talent from Warwick University: fellow graduate companies Barrel Organ and Walrus Theatre also stood out this year, with the (lengthily titled) Some People Talk About Violence and Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons respectively. (Disclaimer: I know members of all three companies, but I reckon I’d consider them all sickeningly talented regardless.)

The Warwick Triumvirate (replacing last summer’s Chris Trilogy) were among the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Another was Ross and Rachel, a witty and eventually devastating duologue-for-one written by James Fritz (whose Bruntwood Prize Judges Award-winning play Parliament Square is one to look out for in the future). Brilliantly performed by Molly Vevers, it cleverly used the iconic on-again-off-again couple from Friends as a springboard to interrogate relationships, cultural notions of romance and the problematic language of love. There was at the same time a similarly brutal look at love from Made in China, whose Tonight I’m Gonna Be the New Me put Jess Latowicki and Tim Cowbury’s relationship under the microscope in order to explore ideas of authorship and power.

Another couple putting their lives on stage this year were Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn in Fake it ‘Til You Make It, a brave, careful and unapologetically personal look at male mental health. It was a show I first saw in scratch form a year ago at Forest Fringe, reducing me (as so much did that Fringe) to tears. A year on, it still pricked at the tear ducts, as well as arguing passionately for a society in which outdated understandings of masculinity are discarded in favour of openness and care. Masculinity was also implicitly critiqued in Lines, another powerful offering from The Yard that has haunted me despite an initially ambivalent reaction. The bleakest view of twenty-first-century masculinity, though, was to be found in Gary Owen’s Violence and Son, a piece as meticulously constructed as it was horrible. In the play’s all too believable world of casual sexism and irresistible violence, as I put it at the time, patriarchy shits on everyone.

This year Owen also offered us Iphigenia in Splott, a monologue that was defiant, devastating and spitting with rage. And the knotty father-son relationship in Violence and Son was just one of many complicated families encountered on stage in 2015. Alice Birch’s early play Little Light showed us a family caught in a cycle of pause and repeat, lives frozen in the icy grip of grief. Two sisters had a spiky, strained reunion in Sparks at the Old Red Lion. The sheer joy and silliness of Jamie Wood’s O No! was dotted with interruptions from his own growing family, while Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me) brilliantly (and tear-jerkingly) transformed from an eccentric take on Milton’s epic poem into a startling portrait of the hopes and fears of parenthood. Even Robert Icke’s modern reworking of Oresteia – the best of what I saw of this year’s Greek takeover – was as much about a splintering family as it was about the political and divine forces surrounding them.

In March of this year, my theatregoing landscape suffered a casualty. I was sitting at home when images of a fire at Battersea Arts Centre first popped up on my Twitter timeline, making my stomach drop away. For long, long minutes I feared the whole place was lost. In the end, despite the complete destruction of the Grand Hall, the rest of the venue was saved and back up and running just the next day, and BAC was overwhelmed with support from those, like me, who love the place and the work it does. Plenty of theatres were on good form this year, but I want to treasure BAC in particular because it felt so close to disappearing. Alongside the already mentioned Stand, shows I saw and enjoyed at the old town hall this year included Song of the Goat’s Songs of Lear (honestly unlike anything else), David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s new binaural head-fuck Fiction, Laura Jane Dean’s delicate This Room, the time-bending double bill of Deborah Pearson’s Like You Were Before and The Future Show and, most recently, the Christmas reboot of Will Adamsdale’s hilarious life-coach spoof, Jackson’s Way.

Some of the most joyful hours I’ve spent in the theatre this year, meanwhile, have come courtesy of a genre I don’t see all that much of these days: the musical. After a couple of years of refurbishments (and following an emotional farewell to Secret Theatre), the Lyric Hammersmith reopened with an ecstatic production of Bugsy Malone, leaving me grinning from ear to ear throughout. I was also grinning for much of Shock Treatment, the wacky Rocky Horror follow-up given a gloriously kitschy staging at the King’s Head, while National Theatre Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour combined great, gulping laughs with real emotional depth. And Imelda Staunton smashed it again in Gypsy, belting out a stunning turn as Mama Rose.

As ever, when I look back at the year more and more shows emerge from the murk of memory. 2015 was the year I finally saw Tim Crouch’s conceptually dizzying An Oak Tree; it was the year The Gate continued an impressive run of form, most powerfully with Danai Gurira’s blistering Eclipsed; it was the year Simon Stephens’s splintered yet beautiful Carmen Disruption came to London, receiving an equally splintered yet beautiful production from Michael Longhurst at the Almeida. The year’s theatregoing also offered me the flickering precariousness of Fireworks at the Royal Court; the rage-laced laughter of Desiree Burch’s Tar Baby; the non-stop hilarity of Sonia Jalaly’s live-art-skewering Happy Birthday Without You; the quiet yet oddly powerful naturalism of Eventide at the Arcola.

And it ended with just a little bit of magic. I didn’t see all that much theatre in the final weeks of the year, but most of what I did see was aimed squarely at kids and families. And it was brilliant. I giggled my way through the National Theatre’s adaptation of I Want My Hat Back, gurgled with joy for most of Little Bulb’s adorable The Night That Autumn Turned to Winter, and loved the bold, gender-switched retelling of Sally Cookson’s Sleeping Beauty at the Bristol Old Vic. All three proved, once again, that it’s all in the telling.

The best of the best-ofs:

Natasha Tripney
Megan Vaughan
Dan Rebellato
Andrew Haydon
Lyn Gardner
Chris Wiegand
Kate Wyver
Matt Trueman

(Some of) the soundtrack of 2015’s theatre:

The Doors, “Break on Through to the Other Side” – 27
Will Smith, “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” – Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons, Lemons
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, “Into My Arms” – Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me)
“Fat Sam’s Grand Slam” – Bugsy Malone
The Beach Boys, “God Only Knows” – Oresteia (just try listening to that song in the same way after watching the show)

Main image from Lost Dog’s stunning Paradise Lost (lies unopened beside me). May also be read as an expression of my feelings about the year in the form of contemporary dance.

Happy New Year!