Cracks in our hearts and heads

mental

I’m sitting on a cushion, knees drawn protectively to my chest, feet covered by the edges of a massive duvet. In a small room in a block of flats somewhere in Edinburgh, I am listening to James Leadbitter (aka artist-activist the vacuum cleaner) share his experiences of mental illness and activism, while medical assessments and police records flash up on a overhead projector. He talks about depression and anxiety. He talks about being suicidal. And I listen, arms curled around legs, biting the inside of my mouth, tears prickling at my eyes.

Ordinarily, I’m not particularly prone to crying – especially in public. So often I emerge dry-eyed from films or shows or exhibitions at which everyone around me is audibly sobbing, feeling oddly shamed by the chorus of sniffles and sighs. Is it that I simply don’t feel as much as them? Or that the public nature of the theatre auditorium or art gallery is too exposing a place to reveal emotion? Or, perhaps, that I feel inhibited as a critic, conscious of my responsibility to be rational rather than emotional?

One piece of criticism that I keep returning to, acknowledging again and again its impact on me, is academic Jennifer Doyle’s reflection on Franko B’s I Miss You. Oddly, it is a piece of art that I never saw. What I’m struck by, though, is Doyle’s emotional response to the piece and her attempts, through this piece of writing, to work through that emotion. The provocation of the unexpected tears elicited by I Miss You expands into a much wider discussion about art, emotion and the position of the critic, who has been encouraged to treat crying with suspicion and disdain.

Two suggestions made by Doyle catch at my mind every time I read them. The first is that, in the space of the gallery or classroom (to which I mentally add the theatre), the act of crying “can leave us feeling a bit naked”. The second is the idea that the impulse of the critic is not unlike “the boundless narcissism of the lover who loves in vain”; that the critical presentation of feeling masked by restraint might be compared with “the lover’s need to have his struggle to hide his feelings acknowledged”. In other words, we can’t admit to naked emotion, but we are desperate for readers to acknowledge the garments in which we have clothed it.

This year at the Edinburgh Fringe, an environment in which emotion is so often heightened and laid bare, I found myself wondering again about the role of emotion in criticism. Not least because my own emotions were frequently tapped in a way that startled me, leaving eyes and cheeks damp to the cool Edinburgh air. Talking to friends and fellow critics, I joked – in that way that everyone knows is not really a joke at all – about what a weepy festival I was having, to the extent that the slightest hint of sentimentality could set me off. No dry eyes now.

But how, as a critic, is it possible to render those tears on the page? Do they contaminate criticism, blurring thoughts like ink on paper, or just offer another lens through which it’s conducted? The answer is … I’m not sure. I have huge admiration for the way in which feeling suffuses the prose of others’ theatre writings – most notably (and brilliantly) Maddy Costa and Megan Vaughan – but it’s a different matter entirely when it comes to tapping out my own emotions on my computer keyboard. I feel far more comfortable with analysis and reflection, whereas I often wince when I see my own feelings held at one remove, suddenly appearing trite and artificial in unforgiving black and white. In a culture saturated with emotion, a culture fed on sob stories and Hollywood romance and X Factor montages, feeling feels cliched.

There’s one section in Ross Sutherland’s Standby for Tape Back-Up that I remember vividly from the work in progress I saw last summer and that jumps out at me again when I see the show for a second time in Edinburgh. Sutherland is recalling the death of his grandfather, a moment in his life that frames the whole piece, and talking about his emotional response. All he can think of as he tries to comprehend the enormity of this loss is the way in which people react to death in films and television programmes. His bereavement is filtered through pop culture, through all of the possible behaviours he has experienced through the screen. It’s a state of emotional uncertainty and paralysis so familiar it hurts. Is this really how I feel, or is this how I’ve been told I should feel?

Another moment that punches me in the stomach with its familiarity and somehow – paradoxically, uncannily – with its unfamiliarity arrives towards the end of Men in the Cities. Chris Goode is telling the story of Brian, just one of the many broken, contorted men who populate his play. Brian is drunk and grieving and heartbroken, walking through the busy streets of London surrounded by the pre-Christmas crush of shoppers. Until suddenly a singing voice breaks through the crowd and the whole piece lurches in a furious new direction. Goode is vomiting an extraordinary stream of text, words that break and fall over me and half of which I don’t really comprehend until I read the script later. In the moment, all I’m aware of is the pure, throbbing, exquisite anger of it all.

People are crying, but this is one of the moments I don’t feel close to tears for a change. Instead I feel emptied out, as though my insides have angrily leapt up on stage with Goode, as though every murmur of rage I’ve ever felt and tuned out has been ear-splittingly amplified. In life, I’m bad at being angry. But like the glorious noise of #TORYCORE, Men in the Cities is angry for me – though not with any of the passivity that suggests. It transforms my anger into something external, something shared. I look at this anger, this hurt that is at once recognisable and alien, and it is nothing like the emotion relentlessly beamed from screens.

I don’t cry during Men in the Cities. I do cry during Clara Brennan’s monologue Spine, though less for the human relationship at its core than the intertwining of this very personal story with the play’s angry, energised and tentatively hopeful politics. I leak a quiet couple of tears during Bryony Kimmings’ new work in progress at Forest Fringe. My eyes well up as my heart thumps during Greg Wohead’s small but beautiful Hurtling. Countless other shows lead me to the brink of tears, sometimes with the profound and sometimes with the painfully banal. One morning, I almost cry while queuing to buy coffee, staring hard at a display of croissants until my eyes clear.

Not all those tears are bitter. Sometimes, like in Hurtling, they are little beads of relief and gratitude. But the show that really feels like a gift, that triggers all the right emotions at just the right time, is Every Brilliant Thing. Those occasions when a piece of theatre feels as though it has been created precisely for you to encounter in the particular parcel of time in which you encounter it are rare. Every Brilliant Thing, on one of the few sunny mornings of the festival, is one of those precious occasions.

My response to Duncan Macmillan’s play is hardly unique. The packed audience on the day I see it is all sniffs and smiles; a collective outpouring of joy and anguish. At one point the show uses, I think, the phrase “happy-sad”. It’s a simple contraction of two simple words – so simple that they conjure emotions little more complex than line drawings of faces with the mouth upturned or downturned – yet it’s somehow just right. Every Brilliant Thing is happy-sad, in the same way that so many moments in life are stained with the feeling of their opposite. Ecstasy is laced with sorrow and despair is pierced with hope.

It’s that heady cocktail of all the brilliance and heartache of simply existing in the world that intoxicates me. Sitting in the beautifully sociable space of Paines Plough’s Roundabout auditorium, I laugh and cry with relative decorum, but if left alone I would be heaving great, shoulder-shaking sobs, a stupid grin plastered on my face and tears rolling down my cheeks. There is no way in which Every Brilliant Thing turns away from the realities of depression and the bitter impossibility of making others happy, but still it is somehow joyous.

And so back to the cushion, the duvet, the tears gathering at the corners of my eyes. I find myself profoundly affected by Mental, Leadbitter’s almost-too-intimate show. This is another facet of depression, not entirely shorn of the optimism that tempers Every Brilliant Thing but certainly with more jagged edges. It is raw and painful and personal. At times I find it incredibly hard to watch, in part out of concern for Leadbitter and what he is forcing himself to revisit every time he performs this show, and in part for a hundred tiny other reasons entirely my own. Reflecting on the piece in the minutes, hours and days afterwards, I struggle to think about it in a way that isn’t deeply coloured by that emotion and difficulty. I wonder if that’s a problem.

Since returning from Edinburgh, and as part of an ongoing effort to make more time in my life for thought and reflection alongside the endless work I foist on myself, I’ve been listening to some of the conversations that Alex Swift has been recording and uploading to his website (if you have some time, do yourself a favour and check them out). In one, artist Harry Giles talks about how politics feels. It’s not something that usually gets raised (at least not explicitly) in political discourse, which tends to be steeped in ideology or, in the case of party politics, policy and spin. But really, when you stop and think about it, the feelings tied up in politics are what tend to have the most impact on our lives and opinions.

I’m not going to add my voice to the debate about Scottish independence – mainly because, being English, it’s not really my voice that matters. But what is astonishing and exciting about the impending referendum, particularly in recent days, is the way in which it has truly engaged a huge range of people in political discussion and how that political discussion has been vitally inflected by feeling. There is a passionate sense that this really matters. Not only that, but it matters not just in terms of the economic arguments that have dominated headlines; it matters at the level of identity and democracy.

In all thought, be it critical or political (and of course those two things are so often intertwined), emotion contains both danger and potential. Feeling in art has a tendency to be equated – often rightly – with catharsis, escapism and conservative sentimentality. But there is also another kind of catharsis to be found in art, one in which emotion is politically charged and straightforward sentiment is replaced by radical collective feeling. It is this collective feeling which Giles emphasises when he discusses how politics feels. And, though far from all of my tears in Edinburgh were provoked by this kind of emotion, it is a similar collective feeling that the space of the theatre is able to hold. When our bodies tense during Men in the Cities or we cry at the end of Spine, our emotions meet in the room, however fleetingly. We feel together.

I’ve now been wrestling with this unwieldy piece of writing for so long that its meandering train of thought is no longer clear to me. I’m not quite sure how I’ve travelled from Jennifer Doyle to tears to the Edinburgh Fringe to the Scottish independence referendum. What I’m clumsily grasping towards is something about emotion, art, criticism and politics; something about how feeling is provoked, experienced, processed and harnessed; something about crying in the theatre and what that really means.

The other night, with complete disregard for my own once again fragile feelings at that precise moment in time, I re-read Men in the Cities. Experiencing it again on the page, a good month after seeing it in Edinburgh and with more space in which to think about it, I was bowled over a second time by just what an extraordinary piece of art it is. It’s fucking stunning. And this time, tears did begin to pool in my eyes. It was these words, directed at the audience, that got me:

“I know. I know. Can we not just put it all down. Aren’t you tired of it all. Aren’t you just tired.”

That’s exactly how it’s written – no question marks. And if I’m remembering the performance correctly, those questions never really felt like questions in the moment either. If they were questions, if it were a genuine invitation to put “it” – anger, violence, hatred, the thousand tiny ways in which we hurt one another – down, then the catharsis would be too complete. It would be a bit of a cop-out, for theatre-maker and audience. Instead, in a world where we can’t (at least not yet) “put it all down”, this possibility is suggested and denied. Emotion is provoked, but never fully released.

In lieu of any real conclusion, I leave you all (or, rather, the handful of poor souls who have made it this far) with this, because a) it’s what I’m listening to this afternoon and b) Secret Theatre’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts is the best barometer I know of how I’m feeling each time I revisit it.

Transform 14: This Building is Full of Secrets

Originally written for Exeunt.

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A journey through a door marked “no entry”. A road trip that covers hundreds of miles without moving an inch. A game in which there are no winners. A dream. A plunge into darkness. A constellation of stories.

The statement of intent running underneath the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s fourth annual Transform festival, emblazoned on the front of its attention-stealing pink and purple brochure, is “reimagining what theatre can look like and what it can do”. The varied festival programme is true to this intent, incorporating everything from off-site interactive performance to small-scale storytelling; from intimate audio tours to late-night cabaret and live art. Some of the work is finished, some of it is embryonic. Around the edges of the festival, meanwhile, there are installations and conversations, inserting art into surprising places.

As festival producer Amy Letman explained to me last year, each event to date has had its own distinct identity. When I was in this same theatre 12 months ago, a little patch of the outdoors had been brought into the bar, suggesting the permeability of theatre and city. While last year’s festival was very much about Leeds, this year’s focus seems to be much more on Transform as a recognisable entity in itself. There’s an appealing sort of swagger, both in the bold colour scheme – volunteers in loud pink T-shirts are dotted around the Playhouse, making the festival impossible to ignore – and in the programme.

This confidence is perhaps most evident in the Playhouse’s foyer and bar, where the festival has occupied the space and become a throbbing hive of activity, drawing in curious audience members as they spill out of the Quarry Theatre. On Friday night, a band plays until late and the area around the bar is packed with bodies. It might have taken a few years, as a number of those who have been involved since the beginning admit, but Transform feels at home here now.

Play the game.

As anyone who has ever had to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance will know, the Job Centre can feel like something of a farce. It is this strand of absurdity that artist Selina Thompson has seized on, creating a new piece of interactive theatre that is as fierce as it is funny. It Burns It All Clean, commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse specifically for Transform, is a silly, satirical trip through a new kind of job centre, with the grand prize of £56.80 for the players who come out on top.

Speaking about her research, Thompson tells me that what was most striking about the conversations she had with jobseekers was the number of people who talked about “playing the game”. Arriving to it from the outside, the benefits system can seem like a labyrinth of unspoken rules, which Thompson has deliberately reflected in the structure of her show. As players in a surreal, constantly shifting game, it is impossible to gain a solid footing.

While taking part in the show – which is just as entertaining as it is troubling – I was also made painfully aware of my urge to perform. This may not be a surprising reflection for a piece of interactive performance, which has a tendency to make its audiences think about their role within the work, but it also prompted me to consider the damaging ways in which the unemployment system might demand people to perform their worthiness. All too quickly, I found myself eager to please – to play the game.

I am interested to hear that Thompson hopes to develop the work further following its outing at Transform. In its current state, It Burns It All Clean feels like an intriguing starting point more than anything else; a striking initial provocation. Its power lies in the transition between contained, involving silliness and the quiet, reflective space it offers as an epilogue to its climax. This is political anger with a smiling face, slowly peeling off the mask.

It is apt that this is playing at Transform alongside Gym Party, Made in China’s anarchic critique of the competition that drives capitalist societies. The show, which I saw in various stages of development last year, enacts a similar movement to It Burns It All Clean, containing a simmering rage beneath its shiny exterior. It is also, like It Burns It All Clean, about games – and about winning. In a system that makes losers of so many of us, it would seem that we still can’t resist playing.

This building is full of secrets, whispered into cracks in the wall. Around hidden corners, dreams surge against the rocks. This building is the product of your imagination.

Backstage spaces, however tatty, always hold a strange kind of magic. It is this thrilling, intangible charge that Hannah Bruce & Company exploit in their new piece, the second of this year’s Transform commissions. The Claim is essentially an audio guide with a performance element, but with the added appeal of leading audiences out of bounds, behind “no entry” signs and through closed doors. These spaces in the bowels of the West Yorkshire Playhouse are not just hidden away; they are secret, forbidden, kept closed off to prying eyes.

While the illicit frisson of trespassing is tempered by a framework of permission – each audience member is always part of a group, accompanied by an usher – there is still an undeniable excitement that comes hand in hand with being offered access to these secret spaces. The journey, which takes place along different tracks for difference audience groups, is constructed with care. It begins in the auditorium of the Quarry Theatre, a familiar area of the Playhouse, but offers us a view of this eerily empty space from different angles. Peeking in from its thresholds, we catch glimpses of dancers moving through the sea of seats, while the stage behind is viewed in fragments.

Max Jones’ gorgeous, evocative set for current Quarry show Of Mice and Men provides a beautiful and occasionally haunting backdrop for these early sequences, its canopy of lightbulbs dimly glowing above us. It is when the piece guides us further away from the stage, however, that it becomes most compelling. Its revelatory moment arrives when we are guided into a vast, shadowy cavern beneath the theatre; it is the one moment in which a real connection with the building’s past and the housing complex that used to sit on its site is felt.

The Claim suffers a little from the usual challenges of audio works, struggling at times to integrate the instructions that guide us around the building and the enticing calls to our imagination. Distractions impede the fluid movement it seeks, never allowing an audience to get truly lost in memories and musings. There is, as with much interactive theatre, an invitation to engage that is not quite seen through.

That said, the piece manages to render these backstage environments truly magical, at the same time as offering an intriguing sideways look at the world. As we are released into the cool afternoon air, I walk away thinking about everyday spaces and the hidden traces of beauty and memory that might cling to them.

“We invite into the room as much – of everything – as the room can help us to hold.”
Chris Goode

There is an intoxicating sort of calm to Chris Goode’s rehearsal rooms. On stepping over the threshold of the wide, airy third-floor space, I feel that perpetual knot of anxiety somewhere in my chest loosen a little, while the relentless ticking away of the minutes seems to temporarily pause. Melting into a chair on the edges of the action – I prefer to be a quiet, unobtrusive presence in the room – I instantly relax, settling quickly into absorbed observation.

I am here to watch Chris Goode and Company work on Albemarle, a new project about dreams, hopes and utopia. As I will be missing the sharing on Sunday, the company are offering me a snatched glimpse of rehearsals. The experience is enthralling but all too brief. The company are mostly weaving together two separately developed strands, as actors and dancers are united for the first time this week. The group share a series of prepared gestures, which are oddly captivating in themselves, before these are placed within the context of a movement sequence.

For a few minutes, with music playing in the background and later overlaid with a piece of text read aloud by Goode, the performers navigate a grid that has been outlined on the floor in tape. As they move carefully along its lines, they freely deploy the series of gestures, which range from hugging to waving to kneeling. These gestures can be either solitary or communal, but is fascinating to witness the urge to mirror and embrace; as it evolves, the sequence seems to become more and more about encounters between the individual bodies. I am reminded of Tino Sehgal’s These Associations in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, with its swirl of moving bodies and fleeting engagements.

After my peek into the rehearsal room, I have lunch with Goode, during which we talk about the project, the festival and the context of work in progress sharings. The Albemarle sharing has been framed as a “sketchbook”, which is doubly apt. More than the woolly “work in progress” tag, it suggests unfinished fragments, delicate outlines that still need to be filled in. It also hints at the presence of artist Lou Sumray in the room, whose gorgeous line drawings capture the movement and energy of rehearsals far more effectively than any usual method of documentation.

The difficulty with festivals such as Transform, as we discuss, is how to talk about the work that they encompass, as well as drawing meaningful links between the festival line-up and the rest of the theatre’s programme. It has been observed that Transform now feels much more like an integral part of the Playhouse’s life than when it began three years ago, gradually making a home for itself within the programme and feeling more closely associated with the theatre’s identity in the city. It’s all about connections.

I am also short of time for Ring, David Rosenberg and Glen Neath’s unsettling “sound journey” in the pitch black, which I experienced last year at Battersea Arts Centre. I do, however, get to take a second trip to Cape Wrath, Third Angel’s charming and intimate storytelling piece. The show, which takes place in a minibus parked up outside the Playhouse, recalls two journeys: that of Alexander Kelly’s grandfather to Scotland’s most north-westerly point and the retracing of that journey by Kelly over 20 years later. It is gentle, enchanting and absorbingly told by Kelly – everything you want from a story.With a wonderful sort of irony, I run out of time for Abigail Conway’s installation Time Lab, which invites visitors to dismantle a wristwatch and create something new from its remains, reclaiming and recycling the minutes that usually dictate our lives. The closest I get to it is a brief conversation with artist and performer Ira Brand on the way to It Burns It All Clean, during which she describes the desire to spend longer with the piece, to get absorbed in the intricate care of the activity.

Stories are also at the heart of Fast Cuts and Snapshots, the Inua Ellams rehearsed reading that is presented by Fuel on Friday evening. Ellams’ new play takes a barber shop for its static setting, positioning this space as a focal point for the many characters who revolve around it. These loquacious customers discuss everything from politics to football, often reflecting on the situation in their native African states and their experiences of living in the UK. The action is frenetic, cutting swiftly from scene to scene, while the characters’ wide-ranging ruminations occasionally feel contrived. As it settles down, however, the piece becomes quietly compelling, sketching a vivid portrait of this lively social hub.

There are other fragments of the festival that I miss in my hurried two-day visit. I never manage to sit down for a conversation with Sonia Hughes, who is inviting strangers to join her for a cuppa and a chat in the Playhouse’s foyer, though I do fall into conversations with several other festival-goers over the two days. I miss two shows about love – Love Letters Straight from Your Heart and put your sweet hand in mine – and one about death: Unlimited Theatre’s new piece Am I Dead Yet? And it is a bit of a wrench to leave before the Transform Variety Night, hosted by self-described “light artist” Scottee.

Reflecting on the festival a year ago, I noted its “intoxicating, transitory buzz”, wondering how this might extend into something more permanent. That buzz remains, as do odd traces of the festival’s spirit in the Playhouse’s main programme. Vincent Dance Theatre’sMotherland – with one of the boldest and best posters I’ve seen in a long time – is following fast on the heels of Transform, while the theatre’s Furnace strand continues to support artists such as RashDash. As artistic director James Brining puts it, “by getting more artists creating, exploring, experimenting within the building – and that doesn’t necessarily just mean the walls, it’s in the bloodstream of the theatre – we are animating the metabolism of the theatre”.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

Hippo World Guest Book, Caryl Churchill Theatre

HIPPO-WORLD

It’s a bit of a bold statement, but I think Chris Goode’s Hippo World Guest Book might just be the best piece of theatre to be made about the internet to date. Except, strictly speaking, it’s not actually about the internet at all – at least, not in any straightforward sense. As Goode tells us at the beginning of the show, none of the words in the main body of the piece are his; apart from the pre-recorded introduction, he has not written any of what is about to be performed. Instead of sitting down at a blank word document and trying to tackle the unruly behemoth that is our online world, Goode has borrowed from it. He doesn’t comment on the internet as much as comment from it.

The vast majority of the text in the show comes from the eponymous Hippo World Guest Book, which is exactly what it sounds like: an online guest book on a website for (surprisingly vociferous) hippo fans. Left unmoderated, this web page is a fascinating microcosm of online commenting culture, beginning in a spirit of giddy optimism but quickly beginning to sour. Goode has edited down hundreds of pages worth of comments into a one hour slice of highlights, though he’s clear that each individual comment has not been meddled with in any way. What we hear is exactly how the commenters wanted to express themselves – a thought that is, as Goode points out, quite extraordinary to reflect on at certain points.

In his little preamble – the introduction to the introduction, if you will – Goode tells us that he stumbled across Hippo World and its oddly compelling guest book by accident, but the subject of the comments he goes on to read feels significant. Or rather, it is significant because of its insignificance. I can think of few things more innocuous than a fan site for, on the face of it, a pretty uncontroversial animal. Because of this innocuousness, the subsequent bile of the trolls who begin to occupy the site is all the more startling, while the lack of any meaningful connection to politics or world events makes it a strikingly pure metaphor for internet behaviour. Where Theatre State’s choice of forum topic (arts funding) in A Lesson on the Benefits of Being a Troll felt a little manipulative, the benign indifference that I suspect most audiences feel towards hippos functions to focus attention on the intent of the comments rather than their specific content (I may be wrong here; my fellow audience members might have had extremely strong opinions about hippos).

The arrangement of the space and Goode’s performance within it also feel important. There’s a very low-fi aesthetic to the piece – so low-fi, in fact, that it would be easy not to think of it as an aesthetic at all, just to accept it as a man reading from a stand. To the side of where Goode reads from the guest book, there is a small table arrayed with a hippo stuffed toy, a candle and a framed photo of Hippo World’s founder. These are all produced, along with the guest book (actual printed pages slotted into a plastic file), from a pretty unassuming Morrisons bag. The candle is lit at the start of the performance, as the recorded, storybook style introduction outlines the utopian beginnings of Hippo World, and remains gently flickering away until the guest book finally becomes a neglected wasteland of casino spam.

There’s something deeply melancholy about this journey from optimism to antagonism to a void occupied only by advertising. It is, of course, a metaphor for the web – and a particularly powerful one in the midst of renewed concerns about Twitter abuse – but it also feels like something of a sad allegory for all of our utopian endeavours. This sense of melancholy is underlined throughout by Goode’s extraordinary performance; even as it is properly laugh-out-loud, tears-streaming-down-the-face funny (and it is very, very funny), there is a subtle underlying layer of sadness, a heavy knowledge of what is to come. Goode takes on the sighing character of a god watching his creations rip one another to shreds, as if he knew all along that it could only end this way. But then there is also such gentle care in the presentation of passion and hope – even if it comes in the form of “I LOVE HIPPOS!!” – hinting that perhaps things could be different, perhaps there is something in the attempt to carve a space for shared enthusiasm and love.

As Matt Trueman reflected in a great piece for the Guardian a while back, exploring the internet in the space of the theatre is extraordinarily difficult, and any show that attempts to do so runs the risk of appearing dated almost as soon as it appears. Online developments simply move too fast, so therefore anything that attempts to be technologically innovative and of the moment is almost bound to fail. Instead, what Hippo World Guest Book does so brilliantly is to acknowledge the mechanics of theatre as much as the mechanics of the internet. Rather than attempting to evoke the sleek, digital anonymity of the internet, Goode makes a point of the analogue intimacy of his surroundings. Attention is deliberately drawn to the simplicity of the props, the physical presence of the pieces of paper from which Goode reads, the co-presence of performer and audience members in the same room.

I would suggest that all the best pieces of theatre about (or touching on) the internet – those that really capture something of its spirit, its complexity, its effects on human thought and behaviour – are those that recycle its habits with a simultaneous awareness of the context of the theatre. I’m thinking of the multiple-tab structure of Narrative; the short, sharp bites of theatrical data in Love and Information; the riotous clash of diet tips, “likes” and cat videos in Vivienne Franzmann’s bonkers piece for Open Court’s Collaboration project. Because while perhaps theatre is ill-equipped to deal with the technological intricacies of the networked society, it is perfectly positioned to explore the predicament of individuals and communities within it.

By way of a postscript, I have to say that I’m intrigued (if not also a little horrified) by the idea of a durational performance reading out every single one of Hippo World’s comments …

The Forest and the Field, Ovalhouse

“Everything is still problematic concerning the real effects of the Theatre” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

As Tassos Stevens so helpfully puts it, the experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it. Therefore the beginning of my experience of The Forest and the Field dates back a while, its very first seeds planted in an idea of theatre that Chris Goode expressed in the eye of the Three Kingdoms storm. Germinating away for almost a year, the thoughts sown at that moment finally broke through the surface in a meandering thought piece that I wrote for Exeunt in anticipation of seeing this show, which feels worth including again here. Not a preview as such, but rather a pre-review. A review in anticipation.

“All the world’s a stage”. It’s an almost meaninglessly ubiquitous snippet of the Bard that, as a theatre writer, I ought to have a dread of opening with. Yet those five painfully over-quoted words carry an intriguing implication. Because if we really do conceive of the world as a stage and our everyday exchanges as another kind of performance upon it, what does that do to theatre itself? And what impact does that understanding of the world have on the relationship between the reality of the theatre and the reality outside?

As these questions might suggest, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about theatre and the wider world – not so much in the sense of whether or not theatre can make a difference in the world beyond the space of its performance, which is an argument so often short-circuited by being debated in disingenuous or misguided terms, but more in the sense of how we imagine theatre’s place within society. This is partly due to a weekly seminar that has had me returning to – and in some cases reading for the first time – the series of relationships between theatre and society that have been theorized over the centuries: Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Schiller, to name just a few of the headliners. Whether conceiving of that relationship as vexed or harmonious, the obsession with it is strikingly persistent.

Such thoughts have also surfaced partly in anticipation of Chris Goode & Company’s The Forest and the Field, which I’ll be seeing at Ovalhouse this week. As the Ovalhouse website helpfully informs me, this is “a gently seductive, immersive piece of non-fiction storytelling, which asks its audience to look at themselves, and to consider what we’re all doing when we meet in a theatre space”. Unsurprisingly, it’s that last little bit that most interests me. I didn’t see the piece’s previous incarnation back in 2009, but Chris’s distinction between “the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things” has been snagged on my brain long enough to made me hungry to interrogate that idea further, even if – as I suspect – I’m not fully up to the task.

The answer to that question of what we’re all doing in a theatre space might seem staggeringly obvious. Surely we are gathered together in one place, usually under the anonymous blanket of darkness, to watch other people perform. At the end we will probably applaud. We might, hopefully, think about what we’ve seen. The optimist might even insist that we leave the theatre changed in some way, galvanised to meet the challenges of the world outside.

My use of the word “outside” is not accidental. The concept of “outside”, naturally paired with “inside” as its polar opposite, seems to haunt much theatre and the discussion that surrounds it. Inside or outside the bounds of the performance event, part of or on the fringes of traditionally understood definitions of theatre, internal or external to the text. Understood in such dichotomised terms, theatre is always inside, referring to an outside that is ever separate and elsewhere. If all the world really is a stage, then perhaps the theatre is its rehearsal space.

But what my initial, crude description of what theatre does deliberately neglects is any sense of real action or making within the sphere of the event. Something happens in that space between the people who occupy it. It might have a bearing on or a certain understanding of the world beyond those four walls – in fact, it would be fairly impossible for it not to have some kind of relationship, however big or small, with the society in which it exists – but it isn’t simply a suspended act, somehow separate and sealed off from its “real” surroundings. Theatre is always in some way doing and making, perhaps at the same time as representing, and that doing is an act in and of itself, whether or not it offers a model for wider change. When thought of in this way, inside and outside – those troubling ideas that we stubbornly try not to taint with one another – become sort of irrelevant. The theatre event is both and neither and a mashed up mixture of the two.

While these confused and simplified thoughts lack nuance, at the heart of the image of theatre I’m beginning to form is a melting of the divisions drawn by the thinkers I find myself reading each week. Running through many of their arguments, whether for or against theatre and its position within society, is an assumption that theatre does one of two things: create through its form an ideal (or not so ideal, depending on the perspective) version of society within the space of the theatre event, or communicate and thus teach a mode of interacting with one another that is then to be applied to society outside. An either/or situation, not bridged by an “and”.

Although the context and exact terms of these discussions differ, there seems to be – at least to my mind – a certain similarity with Chris’s differentiation between “the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things”. Showing versus making, passive representation versus active enactment. What I find myself wanting to ask is whether these two functions can occur at once. Can theatre not be aware of what it’s making within the space and simultaneously offer through a form of showing or representation a new way of looking at the world?

Theatre is constantly and often unhelpfully attended by binaries – entertaining and pedagogical, dramatic and postdramatic, text based and non-text based – the most enduring of which is arguably the line it seems to draw between fiction and reality, play world and real world, whether this line is sketched at the edge of the stage or intersects with the performance itself. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that again and again its purpose has been starkly seen as either demonstrating or doing, acting as performance or acting as action. But is it really so hard to imagine that it might be both?

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching, and this is all that is needed for an of theatre to be engaged” – Peter Brook

First of all, there is no such thing as an empty space. This is important. As soon as our gaze fills the space, it can no longer be empty. It’s the paradox at the heart of Peter Brook’s famous statement, and a starting point of sorts for The Forest and the Field, Chris Goode & Company’s quiet yet powerful meditation on what the hell we’re all doing when we gather together in the theatre. It’s framed as an act of storytelling, but it feels more like a gentle and occasionally troubling dream, vitally prodding at questions that permeate our modern experience of theatregoing. What do we as an audience want? What are we doing when we meet in a theatre space? Can theatre really change anything, or is it indeed theatre and our engagement with it that needs to change?

Talking of starting points, it now feels overwhelmingly apt that I began my musings on theatre and the world with a quote from Shakespeare. Because The Forest and the Field is drenched in the Bard, from the tremulous “oh” that opens Henry V to the intoxicating island of The Tempest, recognising the extraordinary extent to which Shakespeare defines our understandings of theatre. Shakespeare also offers one of the key locations of the title: the forest. This might be an actual forest, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, or it could be the island of The Tempest, the chaotic society of Illyria in Twelfth Night, the furious storm that punctures King Lear – liminal spaces, spaces that enact a certain transformation.

That “oh” that I mention from Henry V is just one of many Os dotted throughout the piece: the groaning animal “oh” of wanting; the wooden O of the original Globe theatre; the O of the appropriately shaped Ovalhouse, copied again in the circular, inward facing arrangement of the audience. O is of course also zero, a void, nothing. An empty space.

The Forest and the Field is challenging that empty space, as well as challenging the perceived emptiness of the theatre as a place apart from the rest of the world. It primarily throws open a space – not empty, but full of our thoughts and gazes – for reflecting, a space in which we might reconsider our understanding of theatre and how it works. This mainly takes the form of Chris Goode speaking to the audience as he moves around the space, while fellow performer Tom Ross-Williams adopts the more traditional role of “actor”, reciting speeches from Shakespeare and impersonating a series of figures, from Brook himself to John Cage to O.J. Simpson.

This foregrounding of the practice of acting feels significant within a piece that is deeply concerned with what theatre does, presenting us with a frame in which the idea of the actor and the actor’s role can be seen afresh. The actor is spoken of as appearing as both self and other; as spectators, we thus engage in simultaneous processes of identification and confrontation. Through the dialogue that this “acting” enters with Chris’s more direct address, we are made aware of such processes, forcing our attention on not just how theatre itself works but how we as audience members work with it.

It’s also worth pausing on that notion of the frame for a moment. As already noted, the space is arranged in a rough circle, with audience members seated on a variety of levels and in variety of positions around it. The middle of the room, at the centre of the O, is packed with a thin layer of earth, while pot plants are dotted around the audience and a large tree branch sits at the edge of the performance space. This is an evocation of the forest in the title, perhaps, but it’s a forest that we already seem to be on our way out of, the foliage thinning. Change, it suggests, is already underway. Meanwhile the light that is used throughout the piece, often illuminating the audience and denying distinctions between spectators and performers, is pointedly artificial; we are genially introduced to the technicians sitting on a raised platform in the corner, highlighting their presence. Mechanisms are visible, uncovered – or at least almost uncovered. The clothing is never quite fully stripped away.

“To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself” – John Berger

Nakedness – or rather the idea of nakedness – threads its way throughout the piece. I say the idea of nakedness because, despite the rather wonderful notice on the door warning that “this piece contains nudity and a cat” (the latter seemed to be a bit shy on the night I attended), what we see in the performance is just that – nudity. It is never true nakedness, though nakedness is what it self-declaredly aspires to. Naked body, naked earth, naked desire. The excruciating nakedness of that wide, round “oh” of wanting. As the piece itself asks, what would it take for us to bare our naked desire, to openly say aloud what we want? Can the theatre ever become a space in which this might be possible?

Through such questions, we are repeatedly asked to contemplate what theatre might be capable of achieving. Theatre’s potential is often located in its liveness, a term that we all tend to be very fond of. It suggests something exciting, something immediate, something radically opposed to a culture of distant and deferred digital communication. That notion of opposition might just be key, as it’s arguably only through the rise of a mediated, non-live (depending of course on how we define and understand “live”, a debate far too large and complicated to include here) culture that “liveness” has gained its meaning and its supposedly radical power.

This is something that The Forest and the Field lightly plays with, quietly exploiting our mediatised ways of seeing (the unavoidable echo of John Berger in that phrase feeling utterly apt in the context of this show). At one end of the space, a projector screen is suspended from the ceiling, which Chris explains was built into the show before they decided not to use video. At various points throughout, a light is shone onto the screen and Chris asks us to look at it, imagining the film sequences that are not there. In this way, recorded media – a form that has irrevocably changed our mode of perception and our understanding of the live – is only present in its absence. By pointedly not including such media, we are reawakened to its constant background presence in our lives and the saturation of our culture with its tropes and particular models of perception. This is also, of course, just another empty but not empty space onto which we project our own images.

There are other, less signposted ways in which recorded and digital media seeps into the piece. One thing that struck me about all the external material and references that are used and cited (perhaps as a way of blurring those lines between inside and outside, theatre and world, as well as recalling Barthes’ idea of the text as a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”) was the lack of a structuring cultural hierarchy. A ballad from Carousel sits alongside snippets of Johns Cage and Berger; the plentiful nods to Shakespeare are joined by an extract from O.J. Simpson’s book. Notions of high and low art don’t really enter the equation (although of course they equally never completely disappear, as my noting of these contrasts bluntly demonstrates), which perhaps hints at the breakdown of other hierarchies. It’s all quotation, all part of the fabric of modern life, of which theatre is also a part.

In the series of dream sequences that punctuate the show, using more self-consciously “theatrical” means of expression, media-soaked ways of seeing the world are again brought into play, as are other influences of today’s world. Our subconscious playgrounds take the shape of sensational movie sequences or are filled with row upon row of consumer goods we might buy – endless, tyrannical “freedom of choice”. This conjures the “synthetic wanting” of capitalism, where we can have anything we want but in fact we don’t want anything – a marked and deliberate contrast with that wanting that is so profound it can only express itself through a moaned “oh”, an absence of words. By inserting this plastic desire into the frame of a dream, its permeation is absolute; dreams and reality have become indistinguishable, and the dreaming space of the theatre takes on a strange new identity.

Gazing out of the train window, a tree is just visible over the jagged fences that line the railway, its bare, crooked branches laden with cuddly toys – a grubby menagerie of childhood remnants. Three days later, in the empty yet not empty space of Ovalhouse, another tree, dead and wrenched from nature, glares out at the audience. This tree is draped with a scarf, a plastic doll, one forlorn half of a Christmas cracker. The rescued fragments of performance.

“Performance’s only life is in the present […] Performance’s being […] becomes itself through disappearance” – Peggy Phelan

During one dream sequence, Chris floats the premise that theatre, like so much human ritual, might gain a meaning through its ending. I’m instantly reminded of Peggy Phelan’s insistence on the disappearance of performance, which she claims as the art form’s essential attribute; for Chris, though, this is a problem rather than a liberation, an impossible puzzle of how to cling on to puffs of smoke.

It’s a concern that seems to be validated in the process of writing, itself a kind of performative act. Already the performance is slipping away from me, its memory increasingly clouded in my mind, more so with every moment that passes and every word that I write. But isn’t this thought and writing also a kind of extension of the piece? It’s a remnant of sorts, yes, but also a continuation. And without the one thing ending, the other would not be able to gain shape and meaning.

“We are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads. And above all else, theatre is made to teach us this” – Antonin Artaud

For all its bleak implication, I like the first part of that quote – particularly the image of the sky falling on our heads. It recalls childish fears, summoning those early moments of realisation that the world is capable of collapsing around us. And that childishness seems fitting, as this is something that we first learn as a child, taught by the experience of growing up, but that we later forget and need to be re-taught – if we agree with Artaud – by theatre. It’s at odds with the common idea that theatre is about a fictional elsewhere, that in the theatre we go to hear confessions in the conditional, a world predicated on the “what if”. But today, Chris suggests, theatre might be a space in which to assert the “what is” in the middle of the “what if” that has expanded outwards to swallow all of modern urban life. In the theatre, we need to be reminded of the way the world really is.

There seems, however, to be a certain contradiction in some of what The Forest and the Field is ultimately suggesting. Theatre, if I’ve understood correctly, needs to push against the stultifying “what if” with an assertion of “what is”, a distinction that seemingly makes it separate from the conditionality of the world in which it exists. But at the same time we are told that theatre is “just one small part of everywhere”, in the same way that “dreams are edgeless”. Theatre is and isn’t different to the rest of the world. Or maybe this is in fact doing exactly what I was trying to grasp at in the piece I wrote before seeing the show, confusing that artificial line between inside and outside.

Before I tie my brain in too many knots, I wonder if these are misplaced concerns. Perhaps the most revelatory and intoxicatingly optimistic realisation of the piece is that, as Chris points out, “we haven’t made all the theatre yet”. This isn’t it yet – its yearningly outstretched fingers never quite graze the ideal that Chris is aspiring to – but it also doesn’t have to be. Because of course the accusation that theatre can’t change the world is really just saying that it hasn’t found a way to change the world yet. In a world that’s constantly changing, the accusation doesn’t mean that theatre might not still find a form through which it can initiate that change.

All the way through this response, I’ve kept using the word “piece”. Part of that is just lazy, imprecise writing; as a critic, it’s one of many terms that I use interchangeably when talking about the production in question, even though each of those terms implies something slightly different. But there’s also something a little more precise and considered about that choice of word here.

During a talk at the Bush Theatre’s RADAR season, Chris picked up on this insistent use of “piece” by both the people making theatre and the people writing about it. In response, he posed a challenging series of questions: “If what I make, if what we make, are ‘pieces’, then what’s the whole of which each of those pieces is a piece? And how can I make the work that I share with audiences, and with my fellow artists, representative in every case of the whole of what I want? Socially, politically, sexually. What are the theatrical forms and structures that will enable me to want in public everything I want in private?”

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, and I’m not entirely sure The Forest and the Field does either. But it’s sort of liberating to think of this show as not just a solitary, isolated piece and instead to think of it as one piece of a larger whole. We haven’t made the whole yet, and perhaps we don’t yet know how to make it, but we can at least make a start on the pieces.

One O, two Os, three Os. A chain, like the interlinked, messily pritt-sticked rings of paper once hung up around the house at Christmas. You can’t make nothing out of nothing. A double negative, recalling the insistent refrain of Kieran Hurley’s Beats: “it doesn’t mean nothing”. It doesn’t mean nothing.

P.S. The photos of various bits of forest dotted throughout are all mine, taken near my parents’ house in Sussex an in the New Forest. As well as feeling appropriate, it seemed only fair to break up the horrendous volume of words with a bit of visual interest.

Where is the Audience?

Originally written for Exeunt.

The question that forms the title of this column might sound like a strange one. The audience are out there surely, in the dark, occasionally punctuated by the odd surreptitiously scribbling critic. They are a vital part of the circuit, without which theatre and performance would not be able to fire. They constitute theatre’s purpose, its immediacy, the second half of its violently beating heart.

Yet I wonder if the audience, robbed of light, are failing to be seen. On Monday evening I attended the latest Platform event as part of the Bush Theatre’s RADAR festival of new writing, an event entitled “how is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the terms in which this question was framed, the contributions – from Sean Holmes, Andrew Haydon, Ramin Gray and Maddy Costa – were centred on interrogating the directions in which both critical discourse and contemporary theatre might be heading and how they might or might not be in step with one another. And those contributions were thoughtful and nuanced and exciting and made me want to start new conversations.

In all of these many heady conversations that I and others have been participating in over the last few months, however, there is a nagging absence. It acts as a black hole, the latent subject around which all our discussions revolve and to which they are irresistibly drawn, but that does not quite show itself. Just as they find themselves shrouded in darkness in the auditorium, the audience have remained barely visible in these discussions, a constant yet silent presence whose lack of visibility only became fully clear to me after it was raised in two separate conversations following the RADAR Platform. Where is the audience in this dialogue?

Being a big fan of conversation – as my friends can no doubt exasperatedly attest to – the thought that critics and theatremakers might be starting to talk more to one another can only be a good thing. But while we alternate between knocking heads and sharing ideas, the very people for whose benefit we’re loudly wrangling might be hovering awkwardly over our shoulders, struggling to find a way in.

At another panel talk I recently attended, I sat stranded in the tides of discussion, uncharacteristically tongue-tied and unable to navigate a route into the conversation. That wasn’t the fault of anyone speaking, but I’d hate for my own excited immersion within the current bubble of critical discourse to make others feel that same sense of marooned dislocation. The bubble is delicate and beautiful, but it might also be exclusive and eventually stifling. After all, there’s only so much air to go around.

It strikes me as ironic that the Platform at the Bush, in which the audience were curiously quiet, was followed later that same evening by the inclusive powerhouse of Kieran Hurley’s Beats. An exhilarating mash-up of storytelling and techno music set to the backdrop of the rave culture of the early 1990s, Hurley’s play hinges tantalisingly on the idea that a live gathering of people might be something inherently radical. It’s an act of immediate togetherness that seems ever more subversive in an age of digital connection that has both expanded and fractured human relations. Set against the emailing, the tweeting, the blogging, the simple idea of collecting in one physical location to share a fleetingly live experience becomes something that breaks the norm, interrupting the electronic noise at the same time as it contributes to it.

As I felt while watching Beats, a belief in the power of theatre must also be a belief in the potential of the shared space and the collective experience. At an earlier Platform event as part of RADAR, which responded to the provocation “one idea that could change our theatrical landscape”, Chris Goode offered up the possibility of “making the space for something to happen in”. Since being generously invited into rehearsals by Greyscale earlier this year, I’ve come to agree with Chris that the site of process is often more interesting and exciting than the “finished” (note the scare quotes) work. I’m utterly, giddily seduced by the fragile magic of the rehearsal room. Setting aside my own desires, however, perhaps what we ought to be looking for is a space – either literal or figurative – that can include everyone; a space that might, as Chris suggests, “scuff the distinctions between process and product, and artist and audience”. Isn’t that the space that we (in which I include both critics and makers) should be really interested in creating?

But before we all berate ourselves too much, perhaps the kernel of a solution to this issue of including and engaging the audience was already there, in the speeches and provocations at the Bush and the enthusiasm- and wine-fuelled conversations in the bar afterwards. At one point during her contribution, Maddy Costa highlighted the US site Culturebot, its guiding concept of “critical horizontalism” and its dedication to a response that is “the continuation of a dialogue initiated by the artist”. That dialogue that the artist has initiated is surely a dialogue with the audience of the piece, a dialogue in which the critic has a role as both a participant and an enabling force. Critics’ conversations with theatremakers, whatever form those conversations might take, are not exclusive duologues; for the health of the discussion and of the art form, we need to get everyone talking.

Of all the speeches made on the stage of the Bush Theatre on Monday evening, the one in which the audience figured most heavily was given by Sean Holmes. Based on his experience at the Lyric Hammersmith, he spoke of audiences that were hungry, starved of something that British theatre is not currently providing them with – a ravenous desire that is not reflected in mainstream criticism, but that perhaps in fact those audiences don’t mind about not seeing mirrored there. It’s a hunger that theatres and makers should be striving to feed, and that for the most part I think they are striving to feed. But that shouldn’t let theatre criticism off the hook. How do we turn on the lights, get talking and find the food to satisfy that appetite?