Finding The Words

©Richard Davenport 2012. London UK. Chris Goode Publicity Images

Originally written for Exeunt and the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.

I’m sat on the edge of my bed, postponing the moment when I need to leave for work, staring with feverish intensity at the glowing rectangle of my phone. In these stolen minutes at the start of the day I’m reading every last word I can about Three Kingdoms, the new production at the Lyric Hammersmith that has sparked a long, sprawling critical debate. My own words are also out there, somewhere in the tangle of online criticism, and for the first time since releasing my opinions into the virtual world I feel as though I’m part of a real conversation.

I walk out of This Is How We Die at Ovalhouse with ears ringing and skin prickling. I don’t have the words to describe what I just experienced, and I’m not sure I ever will, but the search for them feels like the most important thing in the world in this moment. On the bus home, hands still shaking a little, I type an inadequate, sweary tweet on my phone and wonder if a piece of theatre will ever leave me this exhilarated again.

It’s late. Far too late. Far too late – or rather too early – to still be tapping away at my laptop with a full day’s work waiting for me in the morning. But I just can’t stop. I’m writing about Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, a gently mind-stretching essay of a show, and wrestling at the same time with some of the really big, essential questions about this art form that I love. What is theatre for? Why do we make it or see it? What really happens when we all gather in a room together to experience a show?

Who knew theatre could be so epic, so thrilling, so sexy? It takes about five minutes for The TEAM to steal my heart and squeeze it tight with the gorgeous, adrenaline-fuelled juggernaut that is Mission Drift, their warp-speed race through 400 years of American capitalism. Later, catching my breath and staring at a blank Word document, my only thought is: how do I possibly write something even a fraction as exciting as what I just saw?

These experiences are rare. In a lifetime of faithful theatregoing, they appear as sporadic, fleeting flashes on an otherwise calm horizon. It’s the promise of such moments, however, that keeps me going through all the boredom and mediocrity. It keeps me hopeful and it keeps me questioning, two vital qualities for anyone who wants to write about theatre with any kind of passion. No matter how many awful shows I’ve seen, the words constantly on my lips – like a much less glamorous version of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret – are “maybe this time”.

I find it hard to think of any one piece of theatre that set me on a course towards criticism. Writing about theatre, like so many other things in life, was essentially a bit of an accident. As an undergraduate student I kind of liked theatre, I kind of liked writing and I kind of wanted to start a blog – it wasn’t any more interesting or exciting than the serendipitous alchemy of those three things combined. Instead, what I find easier to pin down are the shows that subsequently kept me on that strange, coincidental path.

When first writing about Three Kingdoms and still feeling a little dazed, I suggested that “we need new ways of seeing, of experiencing, of expressing”. This is what the best theatre provokes. There’s a line that I love in Irving Wardle’s book Theatre Criticism: “In the midst of an earthquake, the critic is no better a guide than anyone else”. It’s a slightly embarrassing thought for critics, but an inspiring one for theatre-makers. They trace new contours in the world; we scrabble around to redraw the map.

Or, to put it another way, the theatre that I most want to write about is the theatre I don’t yet have the words for.

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This is How We Die, Ovalhouse

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Lights down. Spotlight, table, microphone. Christopher Brett Bailey – skinny form and violent shock of hair – walks on and sits down, mouth poised over the mic. And open.

Words words words so many words no pause even for breath seemingly faster even than the mouth the mouth in Not I and it’s a bit like Beckett the loops the associations the dark humour staring unblinking into the void but also like comic books graphic novels a comic book sketched out in words in imagination dark vivid lines phrases jump out “farting clichés” language is twisting mutating losing meaning “linguistic whitewashing” permeated with advertising with marketing with fucking capitalist bullshit and the rage the raw pulsing rage but we are here together and that’s something right here together and that bulge in my pocket is not a revolver I am not going to attack you.

How the hell is he talking so fast?

On stage, Bailey is part beat poet, part swaggering frontman, words curling from his lips with a punk rock snarl. His text, read from a slowly diminishing, neatly stacked pile of pages in front of him, is as linguistically dense as anything I’ve heard. And yet it has a musical quality. As the words pour out, they are sound as much as they are meaning. Language slithers and somersaults. It’s now a diatribe, now a painfully poetic digression, now a gleeful contortion of the way we make words mean.

It’s also bloody funny.

“This is a coming of age story no longer.”

At some point the twisting, turning narrative has become a comic strip of America, a dusty road stretching far into the distance. And here’s the shrapnel of every road trip movie you’ve ever seen, sharp splinters flying in the form of words. It’s cartoonish, but then dirty and bloody and totally fucking exhilarating. It’s every thrilling moment of violence in every Hollywood movie.

“Your life is not a thriller.”

So this is the bit about death. Is this how we die? In a mess of language and violence and desperate searching for meaning. Is this the end we’re obsessed with? The scrubbing out of a miniscule speck in a miniscule corner of the universe, the final heartbeat that we both anticipate and recoil from.

But we’re accelerating. The words are getting faster again Bailey’s mouth moving faster coiling itself around the words that are like weapons and the world around us is accelerating too the world that condenses time and space and all of human knowledge into a black box that can fit in the palm of your hand and now where are we there’s a crowd we are the crowd we are the gladiatorial mob baying for blood demanding a performance demanding the words

the words

the words

And then the words are gone and Bailey is gone and all we have is the lights the blinding lights.

Language is dead.

Hum of bass from the gloom beyond the lights. Strains of violin. The noise builds, the light brightens. A fuck-off growl of electric guitar breaks through the strings. And then louder and louder, brighter and brighter. Shapes outlined faintly in the darkness – or is that my eyes playing tricks on me?

Now the sensory overload is almost unbearable and the music is moving in me, through me, vibrations rippling out from body to body. The sound is a primal throb and the noise and the lights are blinding and the noise and the room seems to hold its breath and the noise the NOISE.

I’m spat back out into the Ovalhouse foyer, ears ringing and hands slightly shaking. I struggle to remember the last time I emerged from a show feeling so physically shaken, so aware of my own body in the charged space of the theatre.

I think: this is theatre you feel. Theatre you feel in your gut and on your skin. Theatre that leaves you a little breathless. And that’s an experience which is all too rare.