Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, Soho Theatre

“I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories” René Pollesch

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For as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve been pretty independent. Less in a loud, Destiny’s Child, “throw your hands up” way, more in a quiet, fairly content, getting on with it way. Most of the time, I think I’m OK with the idea of being alone. Yet still there’s this voice socially hardwired into the back of my brain somewhere that periodically shouts “OH HOLY FUCK IF I DON’T SETTLE DOWN SOON I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE SURROUNDED BY CATS”. And no matter how coolly indifferent I think I am to it, I can never completely silence it.

There’s a scene in Alice Birch’s brilliant Revolt. She said. Revolt again. which articulates all of my ambivalence about marriage in ways that I hadn’t even articulated to myself before seeing it. In it, a woman responds to her boyfriend’s marriage proposal with meticulous logic, picking apart the ideology knitted around this institution thread by thread. What her boyfriend has actually just said that he wants, she concludes, is to turn her into “a thing to be traded”.*

I’m thinking about both of these things as I’m watching Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, RashDash’s latest show. About that culturally embedded demand to MATE NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN and about the idea that marriage, this state we’re all taught to aspire to, is essentially about ownership. I’m not particularly comfortable with either idea. No, more than that: as a feminist, I feel I should probably reject both – the voice and the institution.

But it’s not quite as easy as that, as RashDash recognise. Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered is about those conflicting desires to be independent and to be secure; about what we really ask of one another in modern relationships; about whether we should be asking something different, something more. It’s about different kinds of love and how our culture values them. It’s about the idea of “The One” and it’s about every love song you ever heard on the radio.

Bea and Dee are best friends. They love each other. They used to live together, but now Bea has left to live with her boyfriend. Dee misses her. Dee wants her back. Why can’t they just stay together forever?

Representations of female friendship are nothing new, but RashDash dramatically shift the ground on which this one stands. Bea and Dee are no pale imitation of Carrie Bradshaw and her mates in Sex and the City, dissecting relationships over brunch while sporting the latest pair of Manolo Blahniks. RashDash even dare to suggest (*gasp*) that female happiness might rest on more than footwear and fornication. Why do romantic pairings have to be the relationships that define our lives?

There’s something at once bracing, optimistic and sadly resigned about the central suggestion that the two women bind their lives together – not as lovers, but as partners nonetheless. The whole in sickness and in health thing, as Dee puts it. Right from the start, however, it’s clear that this experiment is unlikely to succeed. The hopeful gesture of a new way of relating to one another is balanced by the social and cultural pressures that make it unthinkable. That voice that screams “GET MARRIED OR DIE ALONE”.

RashDash tell this story with a blend of blunt dialogue and striking physicality. In one moment, performers Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen are rubbing their heads against one another, nuzzling like animals. In the next, they are rolling and jumping, flinging one another around the space. The struggles of their friendship and the pressures of the surrounding world are played out physically, the challenges and disagreements unmistakable in their bodily collisions.

And although the speech exchanged between the two women is sharp and often funny, the most powerful moments play out in the visual and the abstract. In one hilarious yet heartbreaking scene, Greenland yells song lyrics into a microphone (“You’re still the one I run to, the one that I belong to”; “If you’re not the one then why does my hand fit yours this way?”) while Goalen runs blindly and fitfully around the stage, covered in a plastic sheet that is wedding veil, suffocation device and shroud all at once. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful visual metaphor for the stifling demands of romantic love, as shouted out from every love song, every romcom, every thoughtlessly saccharine Valentine’s Day card.

Andy Field and Ira Brand’s put your sweet hand in mind – which I fell giddily head over heels for – was originally born from the desire to make a show about love “in which no one falls in love”. In the end the piece that they made, while it was also about other loves, didn’t quite fit that initial bill. Somehow, somewhere along the line, romantic love crept in. It’s hard to keep out.

In Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, Dee and Bea make a similar discovery. Turning one’s back on the promise of romantic love and the fiction of “The One” is no small feat. Given that it seeps into every last corner of our culture, it’s unsurprising that we find it so hard to get away from. As Field once put it, “love turns everything into a love story”.

But voicing the desire for a way of living that is not solely constructed around a romantic partner feels important, both in the context of feminism and in the simple sense of how we relate to one another. If we can uncouple our sense of identity and wellbeing from an inward-looking dependence on one other human being, perhaps we can begin to look outwards to each other, our communities, the world we live in. We can take joy in other kinds of love, kinds of love that aren’t bound up in a lucrative commercial package.

At the moment, however, it remains difficult to imagine. If Dee and Bea fail, and if put your sweet hand in mine fails, then the real failure lies with the society that plants that nagging voice in our heads.

*Incidentally, Alice Birch is currently working with RashDash on two new projects, which is very good news indeed.

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put your sweet hand in mine, Battersea Arts Centre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

There is something both seductive and unsettling about eye contact. That flicker of glances across a busy train carriage; embarrassed yet oddly conspiratorial sidelong looks while standing in a queue; the jolt of meeting a performer’s gaze from the darkened safety of the audience. It is these awkward glimpses of one another, and the awkward bodies that accompany them, that are at the fluttering heart of Andy Field and Ira Brand’s new show. In their fragmentary, dreamlike journey through the landscape of love, the desire to look is always tied up with the impossibility of really seeing one another.

At the end of Nicholas Ridout’s book Passionate Amateurs, there is a sentence that struck me with the quiet sadness of its truth: “The theatre protects us from full communication”. And I wonder if therein lies its appeal. The theatre is a space in which we are forever straining towards those moments of connection and intimacy, safe in the knowledge – loathe as we may be to admit it – that genuine intimacy, the kind of intimacy that leaves us raw and exposed and vulnerable, is always deferred. We can get tantalisingly close to it, but it is ultimately closed off to us. Unlike love, which involves a breathless moment of letting go, in the theatre we can remain teetering on the precipice.

But this isn’t the whole story. Ridout goes on to suggest that this shielding from communication is perhaps why the theatre “is one of those odd places outside the most intimate of personal relations where it is possible to attempt such communication”. put your sweet hand in mine, in its delicate collision of bodies and gazes, feels like one such attempt. Inscribing intimacy in its staging, the piece sits audience members in two rows facing one another, separated by a distance similar to that down the middle of a tube train. We are invited, from the very beginning, to contemplate the face of the individual opposite, in much the same way as commuters snatch occasional looks at one another. But it is as much about our awkward failure to meet eyes, our failure to connect. It is surely not for nothing that Field and Brand’s pair of lovers are seated at different ends of their respective rows, only ever coming face to face when separated by an insurmountable distance.

The strange, startling discomfort of direct eye contact, a possibility that is played with throughout, is enhanced for me by finding myself sat opposite Field, who determinedly locks eyes with me as he delivers his lines. I am reminded of the long, stretched-out moments in Uninvited Guests’ Love Letters Straight From Your Heart in which audience members are instructed to gaze into the eyes of the stranger opposite for the duration of the song “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. As then, the performative situation highlights for me the revealing nature of this simple act; despite myself, my eyes occasionally drop, a small, embarrassed smile stealing across my face.

Seated in this uncomfortably close, immediately charged formation, we are treated to fleeting snippets of a love story, or many love stories, depending on how you take it. Looks are exchanged in the anticipatory moments before a show; shy sentences are traded in a Metro carriage in Paris; bodies hold each other close in the dark and cold. I am tempted to say that there is more to put your sweet hand in mine than romantic love – because there is – but its gentle interrogation of everything love might be tangles these different possibilities together. The giddy, pulse-quickening head rush of infatuation, for instance, is evoked by a barrage of sensory information, part of which invites us to imagine a city torn apart by riots, bleeding together revolutionary passion and romantic desire.

For all the uneasiness and the determined stares at floor and ceiling, Field and Brand cradle their audience within the piece, making any discomfort productive rather than distressing. And the show they have crafted is playful as well as reflective, setting us at ease with gentle humour. Even as we laugh, however, it is underscored with a subtle hint of loss. The most affecting of the show’s metaphors – which are also invariably the simplest – are all to do with a sense of slipping away, a diminishing of possibilities. Melting ice is held tenderly in cupped hands, water dripping to the floor with the steady inexorability of tears.

In another of the show’s most dazzling moments, in which it is held unnervingly taut between playfulness and desolation, Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” begins to play, greeted by a ripple of soft chuckles from the audience. On one level it’s a joke, one that trades on the groaning familiarity of the power ballad and its inflated packaging of emotion. But at the same time it feels overwhelmingly apt. Those well known lines, as overblown as they are packed with yearning, represent the unresolved, reaching note on which the show inevitably departs. I want to know what love is. I want you to show me.