I don’t want realism, I want magic

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 17.25.46

Despite being a fully grown adult with the extreme good fortune of doing something I love for a living, there are still days when all I really want from life is to go back in time and work on the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. As an awkward, bookish teenager, those movies – and slightly later on the books, in the form of a battered but beloved doorstop-sized volume passed down from my dad – meant everything to me. I spent much of the time I should have been revising for my GCSEs compulsively watching the DVD special features; my best friend and I had regular and passionate debates about who was better, Legolas or Aragorn (Team Aragorn all the way); and my bedroom was littered with dozens of carefully drawn, sub-Middle Earth maps of dreamed-up worlds for all the novels I was constantly planning (and failing) to write.

Looking back, I think it was about more than just an escapist love of fantasy and the sight of Viggo Mortensen wielding a sword (not that either of those things should be underestimated). I think it also had something to do with the idea of making something; of dreaming up an entire, meticulously constructed fictional universe (not to mention whole fucking languages), or of assembling a mind-boggling number of people in New Zealand to somehow haphazardly piece together a hugely ambitious bit of cinema. My unthinking, unprocessed reaction as a teenager was simply “I want that”. I wanted to be one of their gang. I wanted to make something.

This weekend, I said goodbye to Secret Theatre. The weekend before, some friends and I spent all of Sunday watching the extended edition Lord of the Rings DVDs back to back (that’s just under twelve quality hours in Middle Earth). And I’ve started to think that perhaps my steadfast, pulse-racing love for the two things isn’t all that different.

I can recognise that not everything about The Lord of the Rings is an unqualified triumph. The books are, if I’m entirely honest, a tad longer than they need to be. As for the films, there are plenty of moments where the pace flags; I never fail to roll my eyes at the is-this-the-end-oh-no-it-isn’t quality of The Return of the King‘s final half hour; and I remain irritated to death by Liv Tyler’s underwritten, maddeningly breathy Arwen. In fact, women in general don’t get much of a look in, an absence that isn’t made up for by¬†Galadriel and Eowyn’s (admittedly cheering) badass moments. Similarly, at times I’ve been critical of numerous elements of the Secret Theatre project, from individual shows to its much-discussed secrecy. That doesn’t mean I’m not still bursting with love for both endeavours.

A lot has been said and written recently about fandom and tribalism. Matt Trueman followed up his column on fan culture last year with a new blog on the subject for WhatsOnStage; Megan Vaughan, whose end-of-the-year fanzine was perhaps my favourite Christmas present (it’s between that and my smoothie maker), penned a kind of parting love letter to Secret Theatre; and Stewart Pringle wrote brilliantly in praise of tribes and head-banging. Tribalism isn’t without its problems, particularly in the small world of theatre. At times it can be blinkered and exclusive, stoking the idea that the art form is the realm of an elite few. But I find myself agreeing with Dan Hutton, in yet another piece on Secret Theatre, that “we need some fucking tribalism now and again”.

Tribalism creates allegiances, it makes you feel part of a community, it means that you have something at stake. When you have something at stake, you can’t just shrug off the disappointment of a Show 6 (I can’t quite pin down why, but it just didn’t work for me) or the anticipatory dread of what look like mediocre, money-spinning prequels (I still can’t quite bring myself to watch the Hobbit films for fear that it’s going to be Star Wars all over again; a girl can’t cope with that kind of heartbreak twice in a lifetime). And as unfashionable as it may be for a critic to be anything approaching a “fan”, if nothing’s at stake then what’s the point?

I’ve just finished reading Hatchet Job, Mark Kermode’s latest book, and while it isn’t about to shatter the foundations of how I think about criticism, it does prompt a refreshing rethink of why on earth any of us bother doing it – not to mention offering a lesson (as most of Kermode’s writing does) on how to be at once entertaining, intelligent and accessible. Though nominally about the cruel pleasure of the scathing critical attack, Kermode’s book is drenched in a sincere and at times unapologetically sentimental love of the art form he writes about. He’s a fan in the true sense of the word, someone who melts at the memory of his favourite films and weeps for days after rediscovering a bit of beloved celluloid that he thought had been lost. At that point I wanted to reach through the pages and hold his hand, or at least say “I know. I know.”

Revisiting my two favourite Secret Theatre shows – A Streetcar Named Desire and A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts – yesterday felt a bit like that. I hadn’t seen Streetcar since it was first staged by the company, right at the beginning of their journey together, and coming back to it was like greeting an old friend: discovering that you’ve both changed a bit, but that what you have is even better than you remembered. After all that time on tour refining and inhabiting it, the production just feels that bit more confident and that bit less in the hulking shadow of Three Kingdoms. Things that I liked first time round I loved on a second viewing: the coloured lights, the balloons, the sexy blasts of music. Also, who needs Gillian Anderson when you have Nadia Albina? I seriously doubt I’ll ever see a better or more heartbreaking Blanche.

Then there’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. Deep breath. I’ve adored this show from the start and probably went from critic to ardent fan from the point at which Leo Bill’s name was pulled out of the hat the second time I saw it and I did an involuntary fist-pump, swiftly sacrificing any last shred of professionalism. Yesterday was my fifth time and, rather aptly, Leo was once again the protagonist. So what do I love so much about it? Too many things to list here. But I think the “Proud Mary” moment kind of sums it up. It’s a scene of such bittersweet joy and exhaustion and community and love and sheer, fleeting ecstasy that it manages to capture a whole kaleidoscope of emotion in one brilliantly silly dance. Last night I spent the whole thing with my face stretched in a smile so wide it forbid the tears that sat poised in my eyes, a deluge just waiting to be unleashed.

We try and fail and try and fail and try and fail again. But still we dance. (*wipes tears from eyes*)

If teenage me could have seen Secret Theatre, maybe I would have spent those clumsy, formative years following the company on tour, making bad devised theatre with my mates and agonising over who was my favourite between Leo and Sergo (undoubtedly a much harder choice than that between Aragorn and one-facial-expression Legolas). And I really, really hope that thanks to Secret Theatre’s ballsy, glorious, messy existence there’s at least one teenager out there who’s caught that bug, who wants to be part of that gang, who wants to make something. Even if, as a fully grown adult aching with nostalgia, she only ends up writing about it.

All together now …