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.