Paraphrase of Heresy: On Forced Entertainment’s ‘Complete Works’ #2

Never promise anything. Trying to process my thoughts on Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works has become one of these writing-into-a-bigger-argument things… Following the numbered plan I had in mind last time, this was (all) going to be #3; I then realised that what I had planned for #4 or #5 were asides that other people have said better elsewhere. Bits of them might get factored into a version of #6, if I get round to thinking that into prose on here. What a mess. In compensation, this one has a fancy epigraph…

 “It is not inconceivable that the author of this prodigious body of work, these plays for which the world has never ceased to feel grateful, was ashamed at what he had done.” (A.D. Nuttall, on the Epilogue to The Tempest)

It’s become customary to taxonomise Forced Entertainment’s work based on the different ways in which the “real identity” of the performers gets mediated: if the shorter, noisier, theatre work apparently presents performers failing to put on a decent show, these performers are also, clearly, carefully-controlled personae; the durational work gets it force from the fact that everyone starts flagging, but what happens when they flag is always going to be preconceived and rehearsed. Liz Tomlin’s summed this up by saying that ‘through a skilful construction, and then removal, of layer upon layer of artifice, Forced Entertainment continually leaves its audience with the illusion of something more essential’ (84). I think, in Complete Works, something slightly different is happening: those established practices of skilled construction-then-removal now have to mediate the kind of task – solo, extended, demanding of memory and attention – that requires and indeed demonstrates skill in its own right. And – much as if you get six people to throw a pot even within fixed conditions and parameters, they’ll produce something slightly different – I kept thinking that this production was unusually invested in the ‘essential’ thumbprints that each performer placed on otherwise similar material, a print which might be inarticulable but which I really don’t want to be mere illusion.

I want to try and give an example but, as soon as I outline it, I think it’ll become a counter-example. One of the challenges that this project was always going to throw up was what to do with Shakespeare’s original text. For a paraphrase to be a paraphrase, surely it has to avoid direct quotation. But, as Tim Etchells makes clear here, Shakespeare’s influence on contemporary English (and, more inarticulably essentially, on ways of thinking-into-language both in his plays and ever since) is such that it’s impossible to do without the original. So I was struck by the overall difference in approach between the two performers whom I ended up watching for longest, Jerry Killick and Terry O’Connor. Killick was notably willing to offer some of the famous quotes at length, closing his Midsummer Night’s Dream with the first four lines of the play’s epilogue, or to use them to counterpoint the phrasing that most pointedly updated or deflated Shakespeare: Viola’s talk of music echoing to “where love is throned” was followed by ‘Well, aren’t you the poet?’ in place of Orsino’s ‘Thou dost speak masterly’. While O’Connor seemed to introduce the odd quote in this way (“lions make leopards tame” in Richard II might count as an example), the overriding impression was of somebody trying actively to dodge the famous lines: her conclusion to Hamlet dragged out Horatio’s admission to ‘bloody… carnal… and unnatural acts’, having been full of lines in which words seemed to be changed for the sake of it, as if failing to meet the criterion of being properly different paraphrases (you could trap Hamlet ‘in the shell of a nut’ and he’d be ‘king of infinity’). In a quirk that was just about frequent enough to appear diagnostic, famous rhyming couplets were paraphrased in such a way that the rhyme was transferred to alternative words: Hamlet admits to Gertrude that he has ‘done as bad a thing as kill a king’; the Prince of Verona promises that people will ‘never forget the story of Juliet and Romeo’. This last is as good a symbol as any of Nick Ridout’s understanding of the performance poetics of embarrassment which I’ve discussed before: the more that you try to conceal something you don’t want to reveal, the more it becomes apparent. Ridout’s thesis takes its cue from Forced Entertainment’s earlier work, and its recurrence here got me thinking about how Complete Works intersects with the company’s wider fascination with the discomfort of bearing witness and being witnessed. I started to play with the idea, given the broadly similar scenic design, that each telling might be an extrapolated present-tense version of a Speak Bitterness confession, with the speaker bearing testimony of the (un)lucky deeds to an unknowing world. As those quotes hint, it’s an idea that’s seeded at the end of Shakespeare’s tragedies, and, like the ‘mixed domestic environments’ business, builds a ghostly narrative frame: you can imagine an authoritative voice saying ‘take as much time as you like… use any props you need…’ (The fact that, broadly speaking and from what I saw, the remaining four performers were similar in approach to (fellow permanent company member) O’Connor than (regular collaborator) Killick might back up this kind of connection. Or it might not.)

image credit: Hugo Glendinning

Is this just a quirk though? I arrived too late to the big Guardian-hosted streaming party on Sunday 28th to identify precisely what sparked Lyn Gardner’s comment that ‘fact this is being told by a woman is crucial’ – but the very first thing I caught, Cathy Naden’s last line from Measure for Measure (‘so she says nothing… she doesn’t even hold his hand’), would seem to be part of the wider evidence for it. I’ll confess, and this is a real confession, that it took me a few moments to buy the full weight of Gardner’s claim. ‘Crucial’? If I was telling you the story of Measure for Measure, as a decent modern trying-to-be-a-feminist-ally type who studied the play at A Level, I’d make a point of emphasising the barbs in its gender politics.

And yet, and yet… the revelatory moment which converted me to Gardner’s claim is O’Connor’s ‘And he says that women… are frail’. (And while the paraphrases sometimes imagined the soliloquies as acts of thinking, this was, significantly, one of saying). The paraphrase creates a frame in which, uniquely, a woman is being made to utter this line as a self-condemnation on a man’s behalf – and in which it becomes more slippery whether that man is Hamlet or Shakespeare. Even a production which imagined Hamlet as female could still soften this with the barest consolation that Hamlet his being given enough agency to condemn herself. Where a dramatised production would either ignore these awkward statements, or find a way to maintain ironic distance from them, here they sit imperfectly mediated, half-digested, embarrassed.

Pricked by my own shame at not noticing this, I began to see more and more moments like this coming up, particularly in O’Connor’s contributions: sharing other characters’ embarrassment at the Nurse’s insistent innuendo in Romeo; then more explicitly, in Comedy of Errors, with ‘she’s been very… he actually says “shrewish” but let’s say “suspicious”’. This is not even a game anymore. It’s suddenly no longer about feeling slightly embarrassed or just mock-embarrassed by the process of executing the paraphrase of Shakespeare properly; it’s about recognising that Shakespeare’s texts are, at moments and for some people, genuinely shaming, and that there is something shameful about me, or the UK, or the world, granting them the cultural capital that we do. But – as embarrassment dictates – Shakespeare can’t quite be removed from view and his currency debased altogether.

I’d like to imagine that the “no longer” dimension applied just as much to the process of devising the work as it did to my response to it: just as Merleau-Ponty once noted that we all magically fall asleep by pretending to be asleep, and in my experience crying tends to be preceded by “getting worked up” and a moment of admission to yourself that you’re about to start crying, guilt at performing Shakespeare might need to be fantasised before it can be sincerely felt. And might this in turn lead to embarrassment, as it did for me, that this embarrassment wasn’t sincerely felt in the first place?

As I said, all this exposition casts doubt on my initial discovery of some essential performative thumbprint – but not entirely. (Brace yourself…) Much as I’ve previously argued that these plays worked by enchanting and disenchanting a host of objects that were never disenchanted in the first place, I believe that they simultaneously made a kind of appeal to the here-and-now particularity of what each performer skilfully achieves and a demand to reflect on the grubby ethical implications and origins of this practice as soon as the skill is articulated as such. I think I’ve come to something like a reverse of Tomlin’s position: while the demand to reflect on ideological concerns shows up ‘the illusion of something more essential’ for the illusion that it is, the existence of the demand itself depends upon ‘skilful construction’, an essence of practice which cannot be faked.

Image copyright Forced Entertainment 2015.

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Such Dreams that Stuff is Made On: On Forced Entertainment’s ‘Complete Works’ #1

So, where have we got to?

Since last Thursday, Forced Entertainment – the Sheffield-based experimental theatre company around which some of my research stumbles – have been streaming their new project Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare live from Berlin. An hour-long version/summary/paraphrase of each of Shakespeare’s 36 sole-authored plays (everything in First Folio, but with Pericles subbing for Henry VIII) is narrated by one of six company members and illustrated by household objects standing in for the characters.

At the time of writing and publishing, the final performance is (just) still to come: if it’s still between 5 and 9pm on Saturday 4th July, you can (stop reading and) watch it here. This is a first attempt at sketching out what I think so far, on what I’ve managed to catch.* The current plan is to split my thoughts over a couple of blogposts (probably 3 sets of 2 points): partly in the spirit of the event’s sixes and seriality; partly because I know previous posts on here were achingly long; and partly so I can get in now and encourage new viewers to catch what they can and current ones to keep talking if they wish/dare.

image credit: Hugo Glendinning

1) Attending

It was hard to work out how to watch something like this, even for someone familiar with the company’s previous work and the kinds of strategies that they expect audiences to acquire. It’s a different mode of attention to the longer, “one-take” durational productions that have been livestreamed before. Unlike the constant stream of questions and answers in Quizoola! or confessions in Speak Bitterness, this is a series of fewer, larger structures that seem to demand attention as coherent units: there’s less of a warrant for the kind of continuous slipping into and out of distraction, of an absorption of the performance into the background business of everyday life that Billy Barrett feverishly expresses here. And yet… sticking four plays together retains the possibility for livestreamers like me to see this as a continuous four-hour block of similar kinds of performed action. That window for distraction, for the kind of weirdly sustained, sustaining boredom that has (er…) interested me in the earlier work, was still open. And I think this is bound up with…

image credit: Hugo Glendinning

2) Handling

…my relationship with the objects, which often seemed to be oddly out of synch with what people were saying on the Twitter feed (#completeworks). When people kept describing the emotional investment they’d discovered in the various tools and bottles playing Hamlet and Viola and so on, or the fact that they’d rediscovered the kind of love for inanimate objects that we give up when we leave childhood, my response was more… ambivalent.

That’s not to say that I didn’t feel moved or amused – and that I didn’t enjoy the very different kinds of more cerebral work that the introduction of objects encouraged (yes, I got the pun of making Romeo a torch as soon as he was brought on…) It’s just that I wanted to maintain attention to the fact that within every play there would be objects which passed my notice, or which had not been consciously chosen to carry any kind of freight. I wanted to retain a sense that this was all something less than a puppet show, that my attachment to these objects as characters was absolutely contingent and temporary – but that when it went, it sank not into some inanimate blankness in which objects just “are”, but into a background condition of animation generated by their everyday use, and from which that “character” was generated. So I liked the fact that every play seemed to contain objects from at least two different domestic settings, often with a slight bias towards one: it allowed the performances to retain the trace of a more mundane storytelling event (‘I can explain it to you here in the kitchen… Oh wait, I’ve run out of props, let me just nip to the shed.’)

I suppose ’m trying to find a way of talking at greater length about gesture and practice in this production with, or against, or alongside objects. In Twelfth Night, Malvolio was represented by an upturned hammer, its shaft invisible against the black, and largely manipulated by moving the head on which it stood. Only as the play ended, and Malvolio promised ‘revenge on the whole pack of you’, did Jerry Killick pick up the hammer by its shaft and mime blows on the assembled objects: the clearest expression I’ve ever encountered of the almost-boiling-over menace of that scene. For much of Lear, I was struck by Robin Arthur’s greater tendency than in most plays thusfar to make gestures that didn’t incorporate the objects on the table, as if he needed to fall back on his body to represent all the raging and eye-gouging. But these gestures suddenly seemed to be brought to a kind of fulfilment as the play ended and Lear, represented by a long thin vase, came on holding Cordelia, a bottle – except that it needed the work of Arthur’s good hands to stand in for Lear’s, on either side of the glass. If the text at this point was all about the shock of characters having no life or breath at all, this moment seemed to sit on a knife-edge against it: Arthur was imbuing the bottle-Lear with a manifestation of life that it hadn’t had before, or drawing attention to the fact that Lear and Cordelia have never been alive in the first place. And, again, it suddenly brought the shape of the vase into a focus that it had not had before.

In the Poetics, Aristotle emphasises the importance of anagnorisis, or moments of recognition, to classical tragedy; in Shakespeare, it’s perhaps most clearly and movingly dramatised in the late comedies. The examples that I’ve given illustrate their narrative moments of recognition by encouraging new recognition in an audience of what those illustrating objects can (or can’t) do. But if this makes recognition feel momentous, it also highlights the way in which it is also the kind of mundane experience that happens whenever we play with an object. It is felt as much within the kind of skill narratives traced by Richard Sennett and Tim Ingold as it is within dramatic ones, in those ‘eureka’ moments when we discover a new or more successful use for a tool during our experience of practising or playing with it – and no doubt this production emerged, as much previous Forced Ents work has done, from a whole host of such messy, contingent discoveries concealed from the final performance. As well as granting these objects new Shakespearean significance, do these objects also drag the business of Shakespearean storytelling down into their not-quite-nothingness? Just as re-cognition does not so much bring characters or events into existence, but alter the way in which they exist, so does the enchantment of the objects in these plays emerge out of a pre-existing enchantment that we find harder to articulate. (It’s even harder to untangle issues delayed, or shared, recognition: I was moved by, and grateful for, David Ralf’s recognition (if it applies here too) during Romeo that ‘the action’ stopped by the lovers’ meeting had never started in the first place, a subtlety I’d missed – but I can’t quite remember what I was imagining at that moment that would alter my memory of it. I can’t make that recognition happen for me.)

There’s probably more to be said on this. All of this has a bearing upon the dramatic suspension of disbelief, and the concern about commitment to one’s affect-ions, that keep being raised by Shakespeare’s plays themselves. (In the latter case, often along gender lines – is my assumption that we can’t stay true to the values we attach to objects related to me being male, and culturally conditioned not to over-emphasise feelings of intimacy?)

It might also have something to do with Twitter. I’m worried this might’ve all come across as a critique of other attitudes to the performance. I want to deny neither their validity – as I said, we’re all working on new strategies for watching this – nor the possibility that many (most?) other viewers have held both of these thoughts at once just as I have, but that they are not always being expressed at the level of the single Tweet. Maybe Complete Works now demands recognition in turn of how we use social media to respond to performance; we talk, after all, of “Twitter handles”…

*

Phew. More to come, I hope.

[*Full disclaimer, for anyone interested: to get a sense of my viewing habits, I aimed to watch at least one play per day, based largely on when I could make time around work etc. I ended up catching Macbeth, Pericles, Richard II, Merry Wives, Hamlet, Henry V, Errors, Troilus, Twelfth Night, Romeo, Cymbeline and Dream in full; I came in on Love’s Labours and Lear partway through, but think I got a clear sense of them; I caught snatches of a few others. I deliberately chose to watch one play of which I have no working knowledge (Merry Wives), but otherwise ended up – more by accident than design – keeping to what I was familiar with. By pure coincidence, I saw each of the six performers at least once and all six of the plays (assuming equal divvying-up) given by one of them, Terry O’Connor.]

Both images, copyright Forced Entertainment 2015.

So it goes in the world (Ballyturk, National Theatre, 9/14)

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“All this time and their minds are racing with what 3 has left them in the room – perhaps the exercise will expel these thoughts of life and death.”

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying and failing to write a conference paper setting Beckett alongside the work of Forced Entertainment. It’s a tall order, to talk about how we got from this to this in not that many years at all. I’ve realised that it’s a question which might underpin the whole of my PhD. To get me through the writer’s block, I want to think about something that seems like a missing link: Enda Walsh’s latest play, Ballyturk, now long finished its run at the National. Back when I had aspirations and resolutions last September, I’d intended to write a longer piece setting this play alongside The Nether and Teh Internet Is Serious Business, both staged at the Royal Court at about the same time – but I don’t think Teh Internet’s released its script yet, and I’ve already kind of talked about The Nether, and…

I was going to start that great lost review by describing what happened when I went to see The Nether. Arriving half an hour early, I browsed in the Court’s bookstall. The paperback of James Knowlson’s exhaustive Beckett biography Damned to Fame was going half-price, so I decided I’d make up for lost time and actually learn more about the author I was going to spend at least three years writing about. I sat on one of the benches in Sloane Square and read the preface. Here’s how Knowlson describes his first interview with Beckett for the autobiography, itself held in the last year of Beckett’s life:

I said that although I understood perfectly well what he meant when he spoke of a separation between his life and work, I could not agree that such a separation was as absolute as he claimed. I then quoted some of the images of his childhood in Ireland that appear often in his work, even in his late prose texts […] Dozens of such images could be cited, I maintained, which bridge his life and his work. At this point, Beckett nodded in agreement. ‘They’re obsessional,’ he said, and went on to add several others.

In The Nether, the creator of the eponymous online environment is described as ‘obsessed by the image he has created’ – and, at the play’s conclusion, he’s released into ‘in-world banishment’, without access to the Nether, with a quasi-Heideggerean call to an ethics of dwelling: ‘The world is still the place we have to learn to be. You are free to go, Mr Sims. You are free.’ Is there something similar at stake in Beckett’s agreement with Knowlson? At one level, it’s an acknowledgement that he keeps turning away from art in favour of experiences that might be called ‘life’ or ‘the world’ – but that turning away is itself a kind of obsession. Beckett’s writing seems to be driven by an obsession against obsession, an obsession with learning just to let these various images be. (The words ‘obsession’ and ‘object’ have, incidentally, executed a strange etymological pas de deux. ‘Obsession’ emerges from the archaic verb ‘to obside’, or besiege, which itself comes from ob + sedere, to sit against – while the Latin verb at the heart of ‘object’ is iacere, ‘to pose’, but also ‘to throw’. The word that we now associate with violent fantasy has the more innocuous root, while the one we associate with stuff just lying around conceals its violence.)

The treacherous business of world-building is also at the heart of Ballyturk. It’s simultaneously tricky and easy to summarise (here be spoilers). Two unnamed men live in an apparently sealed room, passing the time listening to 80s classics, dressing and washing each other according to daft co-ordinated routines, and acting out the lives of the inhabitants of Ballyturk, an Oirish town of supra-Father-Ted proportions that 1 allegedly ‘see[s] in [his] head’. It becomes apparent that 1 (Cillian Murphy in the original production) is being sheltered from the outside world by 2 (Mikel Murphi): he’s never seen a fly before, and believes that bunnies have five legs. Eventually, the back wall of the room pulls apart and 3 (Stephen Rea) enters. After indulging their pratfalls for a bit, he discusses how flies ‘grow inside that shell of theirs’, living off inherited ‘broken images of the outside world’, and gives the pair an ultimatum: ‘it’s time for you two and for what you’ve made – time for you to walk away and into your passing’. Leaving the room and it’s life-world with 3 may be explicitly associated with death, but it doesn’t take much to notice that this trapped condition is also a (living) death of its own: when the wall opens for a second time and 1 leaves, ‘little marigold flowers have grown in the grass’. For it is 1 who leaves, demanding ‘How can I talk about Ballyturk knowing that it’s only ever inside this breaking body and nowhere else? There’s no freedom to it – it’s filling rooms with words, not real life’. And yet this doesn’t stop him from abruptly, tenderly, having a rethink for a moment, offering to stay on 2’s behalf and to ‘knit these words you taught me into something brand new’ – because he recognises that the pre-condition for knowing ‘happiness’ in ‘real life’, the world in which we have to learn to be, is the sustaining of a narrative with which to frame it.

I’ve used the word ‘tender’, and I want to make it clear that I like this play: cliché as such a judgement is, it manages to be funny and moving. And yet, and yet… stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A source of authority who comes back. Passing the time (that would’ve passed anyway). Two people onstage, someone arrives, that person leaves. 1 says ‘I can’t go on’, then goes. It’s not the fact that Ballyturk feels derivative of Beckett that annoys me. There are moments at which Walsh’s capacity to think with Beckett, and ‘with’ in the sense of ‘alongside’ rather than just ‘using’, is hugely impressive. The first memories of life outside the room, which flood back to 1 after 3 leaves, centre around ‘this sugar being chewed into my mouth. My mouth. (Slight pause.) It was mine.’ It resonates quietly with the way in which memory is pared down to the sum total of various overlapping ‘buccal phenomena’ in Not I.

But the relationship which Walsh sets up between his play and a play like Waiting for Godot implicitly – and probably only implicitly – suggests an attitude to Godot with which I don’t agree. It’s as if Walsh is treating Godot as a drawing that he needs to colour in and add bits to: sketch a room around the two protagonists, make it clear why one of them knows more than the other, ramp up the Irishness… As Ballyturk goes on, one gets an increasing sense of who these characters are and at least the broad brushstrokes of the situation they’re in, a sense that isn’t really equalled in Godot (or Endgame, as Adorno famously argues). Matt Trueman latches nicely onto Walsh’s metatheatrical fascination in his review: it’s as if the best way to write a play about our compulsion to construct fictional worlds to live in, and the importance of doing so tentatively, is best expressed through a play that constructs its own world tentatively and knowingly. And here’s the rub: by choosing Beckett’s plays as a foundation on which to build such a world, Walsh conceals the fact that Beckett’s plays do this already, reflexively, inconspicuously.

It’s easy to see Godot as a Great Abstract Play of Ideas which needs tying back to the world, which requires plays like Walsh’s to render it more explicit. But I’m with my PhD supervisor on this one: we read Beckett best when we read him as a worldly writer, and Godot and the rest as plays that are fundamentally invested in what we do with nets and hats and carrots and Irishness, rather than in whatever suspect philosophical certainties Alain Badiou and friends might find in them. If theatre is the place where we go to face up to our obsessive framing of the world, framings that are both our life and the death of us (especially the latter in The Nether? both together in Ballyturk?)… well,  Beckett’s theatre has already accepted that, without the need to telegraph it metatheatrically. It seeks to turn this framing into a subterranean way of life, into what just happens. I’m finding all this quite hard to articulate, but there seems to be something ethically valuable in Beckett’s recognition, and specifically in Beckett’s late recognition, that his career could be characterised as an obsession against obsession. It suggests that, left unconsidered, the practice of making his work was the non-violent counterpoint to such obsession: the writer rendering himself as a thing among things.

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What then of Forced Entertainment? I was compelled to think again about Ballyturk because of the link that Trueman makes with them: he argues that the neon ‘Ballyturk’ sign at the back of the set is a kind of a localised symbol of Walsh’s broader common commitment to ‘the vocabulary of onstage reality and tangible materials: pratfalls, fire, talc, darts’ and other ways of making a bloody mess. But is there more to this than a nice nod? It’s worth thinking harder about the influence that Forced Entertainment’s techniques have had on the contemporary theatrical ecology. As I’ve said elsewhere, Nicholas Ridout’s argument seems premised on seeing them as an exception that proves a rule. In her book (partly) on them, Sara Jane Bailes notes that their ‘“style” is evident amongst younger companies, at times developed in highly original and effective ways, at others highly derivative and flat’ – but then moves on.

Perhaps going back to Beckett will help with this. On reading the script for Ballyturk, I was struck by the stage directions for the Rude Goldberg-style routines 1 and 2 execute (my emphases): ‘At 1:04 in the song, he’s dressed. Good.’; ‘He goes to the freezer and takes out a pair of runners and places them on. Perfect.’ It’s another case of Walsh thinking, this one no doubt unconsciously, with late Beckett: with the in a merciful… [Brief laugh.] … God… [Good laugh.]’ moment from Not I. The goodness, in both cases, illuminates the work that goes in to the performer embodying the protagonist. ‘Good’ seems like an odd word to use to describe Mouth’s second laugh: ‘longer’ is the more natural partner to ‘brief’, and the laugh itself is generally played as bitter, derisive, hysterical. It retrospectively turns the first laugh into a less successful attempt at laughing which is then repeated – and, while this may or may not be the way in which that laugh is represented as happening, this is the experience of the actor portraying her. The stage direction traces, within each performance, a version of the rehearsal experience, the running start acquired to perform the skill successfully. Ballyturk may leave us wondering whether all the various time-passing routines have ultimately satisfied its protagonists, but the stage directions trace a sheer satisfaction in an onstage job well done, a satisfaction shared by actors, director and audience.

Ballyturk as a whole can’t be reduced to this kind of sheer ‘job well done’. The dance routines are interchangeable embellishments, albeit frequently load-bearing embellishments, to the machinery of the Beckettian plot: I didn’t need to mention them that much in my summary of the play. In this sense, it avoids the abiding drive within Beckett’s career, towards the kind of exercise so pure that it does not need to think about its own negotiation between life and death. Narratives, memories and trials bubble up as potential frames for Not I, but playing and watching it requires the actor and audience to accept it on some level as ‘pure buccal phenomenon’, as hard as that is.

Forced Entertainment pieces, too, often look deceptively like just a bunch of stuff that happened. Indeed, Etchells and the company have frequently described their experience of going out into Sheffield during breaks or blocks in rehearsal, and questioning why what they are seeing is not turning up in their work: the aspiration is for a kind of total identification of the play with the worldly circumstances that is has emerged from. Except, of course, they don’t quite manage it. It doesn’t ‘just happen’. That’s why some of their imitators are ‘derivative and flat’, and why putting, say, drinking games on stage – even with their weird entropic rhythm of rules always not quite being followed well enough, of new rules being created arbitrarily – doesn’t quite a Bloody Mess make. The barest of all possible frames is being set up, so bare that the company themselves can’t quite see it as they do it, maybe don’t want to see it.

In a characteristically sparkling aside in Simon Critchley’s Very Little… Almost Nothing, he describes the ‘quite rigorous technique at work in Beckett’s writing’ in the Trilogy, a technique needed in order to keep the ‘aporetics’ going. Both Beckett and Forced Entertainment have long been read under the sign of failure, thanks in no small part to their own statements and activities. But talking about failure in relation to Beckett always strikes me as the lit-crit equivalent of a First World problem: if he’s so invested in failure – if we can even talk, as Bailes does, about creative works that embodies failure – why are we still talking about it and thus implicitly making A Good Thing of it? That’s why I’m interested in reframing the debate around skill. It takes a kind of skill to move from ‘obsessing against obsession’ to ‘just being an object among objects’: indeed, such a passage might be the definition of skill. Skill is knowledge that you don’t know you have, that is only had in action. At the point at which the Knowlson-prompted Beckett stops to reflect about images in his work, or Forced Entertainment stop to walk around the parts of Sheffield that are not in their work, the obsessive perspective reveals itself again.

Where Ballyturk differs is that it chooses, instead, to dramatise that revelation. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that – but it nevertheless feels like this approach swerves away from something ethically or politically important, perhaps even utopian, certainly in Forced Entertainment and perhaps in Beckett too. In an attempt to argue (against a fair few detractors) that Forced Entertainment’s work is political, Bailes talks about how ‘their theatre little’s-down the ideology of Britishness as cohesive, instead demonstrating fragmented, competing worlds and identities that are usually indeterminate and lost’ – and this feels good and true, to the company and to the world beyond. It carries something of an echo of the visionary note on which Peter Sloterdijk (albeit not unproblematically) ends You Must Change Your Life: we must imagine ‘a global co-immunity structure […] with a respectful inclusion of individual interests, particular cultures and local solidarities’. We should be more grateful than ever that parts of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony looked as much like a very (very, very) establishment version of a Forced Entertainment show as they did.

The anthropologist Tim Ingold has recently become important to my thinking. In his essay “Of string bags and birds’ nest”, he ponders what separates the skills we think of as taught or culturally engrained (such as the bagmaking practices that young girls in the Telefolmin of central New Guinea are taught) to those that we think of as innate (such as the capacity for a male weaverbird to make a nest, or humans as a species to walk and speak). What if, Ingold asks, we deny this axis? What if we say instead that all ‘skills are innate, in the sense that so long as the necessary environmental conditions are in place (including the presence and activity of already skilled practitioners) they are more or less bound to develop’? This might provide a model for a different way of thinking about how certain dramatists influence each other. Whereas Walsh’s more-or-less conscious engagement with Beckett seems itself obsessive, and then trying to obsess-against-obsession (a la Harold Bloom, perhaps?), Forced Entertainment’s more-or-less instinctive operation on the same ground, or within the same skill-world, might just let Beckett be, as he might, just, already have been.

What we ought to say (Hope, Royal Court Theatre, 21/12/14)

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CW: sexual violence and self-harm, both only in paragraph 3.

After coming out of Hope, I nipped through the Royal Court bar to the toilet. The company afterparty for God Bless the Child, critiqued for your delectation here, was in full swing. As I wove past Hayley-off-Coronation-Street ­and Watson’s-wife-off-Sherlock and all the kids, at least one of whom was in a non-ironic bowtie, it struck me. Hope by Jack Thorne was the best play that I’ve seen at this venue in terms of solving The Royal Court Problem: how do we make theatre that can meaningfully be described as ‘political’, even (for Vicky Featherstone, this year) ‘revolutionary’, to a largely affluent middle-class audience who have pre-established left-liberal values anyway? I’ve spoken before about the ultimately safe feeling of ‘edginess’ that pervades the Court as a venue – and David Greig’s expressed it more eloquently in his manifesto-essay ‘Rough Theatre’. While it’s hardly a game-changing play in the grand scheme of things, the atmosphere in the auditorium at Hope seemed to be one of tentatively finding a way out of this mess. My abiding memory of God Bless the Child was being sat under the harshly clinical fluorescent lights of its fake-classroom, being made to feel angry by a precision-engineered theatrical angrifying tool that wasn’t really that carefully constructed. Hope, in contrast, seemed to say, ‘You’re here because your idea of pre-Christmas fun is to watch “a funny and scathing fable attacking the squeeze on local government”. That means you’re probably already angry – guess what, so are we. Let’s have some fun with this anger, and see where we go from here.’ At God Bless the Child, there were lots of individual sardonic laughs at isolated, puncturing moments. The audience at Hope was one of the warmest and most organic I’ve been in recently: we laughed together, we tittered privately, one of the pair of elderly ladies gave a half-scandalised ‘ooh’ early on (more on that later).

Solving The Royal Court Problem is not reducible, as Featherstone’s predecessor famously proposed to make it, to analysing ‘what it means to be middle class’. In the opening scene, Mark (Paul Higgins), Deputy Leader of a Labour-led council, rehearses a public speech in which he insists that ‘we are a working-class town’, one that has struggled with economic crisis before; no location is specified, but it’s clear we’re far from Westminster. The comparisons to be made with Jim Cartwright’s Road, the play that occupied this space coming on to thirty years ago, are surprisingly enlightening. I had the chance to see Cartwright’s play for the second time a few months ago: the effectiveness with which it shows the most intimate somatic consequences of apparently cool, distant and large-scale political decisions – most notably in the central scenes of Joey’s hunger-strike – continues to startle. (‘Consequences’ isn’t quite the right word: such violence seems to be presented as the fundamental inalienable logic according to which Thatcherite policy always already works.)

In Hope, no sooner has Mark announced his working-class credentials, he stumbles over the line ‘we live in an age of cuts’. His colleague and lover Julie (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) facetiously chips in with the suggestion that he replace ‘cuts’ with ‘cunts’, and then that ‘vaginal mutilation might not go down so well with the woman’s vote’. This is what made my neighbour in the stalls so shocked, and it established a connection of violence with money (and especially of money as physical object) that would echo throughout the text. But only echo, and only in the text: one of the strengths of Thorne’s writing is that the connection emerges reflexively, uncannily, without ever acquiring the force of a running metaphor. After spending the night with him, Julie notices that Mark has a spooky dent in his back ‘about the size of a five-pence piece’. He later admits that he first became aware of social responsibility when he made a joke about an impoverished schoolmate getting his hair cut at the charity shop ‘Round Pounds’ – only for the kid to tear his hair out. Another councillor, Sarwan (Rudi Dharmalingam) insists on describing a rash ‘only a day away from seepage’ to a colleague, and admits that the nationwide imbalance in local government cuts ‘make[s] you want to tear someone’s throat out’. Yet this violence is never staged. When a local resident is killed as a result of reduced public street lighting, it is recounted as just another problem for the flailing council to deal with. If Road exposes the wounds of the political body for all to see, Hope doesn’t want to, or can’t: it’s as if, decades after the collapse of the industrial North and four years into LibCon austerity, we’ve become used to no longer registering this pain as pain.

It’s there, too, in Hope’s unique status as an ultra-recent history play: it rattles through the months of 2014, with references to Miliband and Pickles and Farage; characters discuss the Scottish referendum, but crucially only after it has actually taken place; its final scene is specifically set on the day of the play’s performance.  The effect of watching events that are not-quite-contemporary, divorced from the contemporaneity with which we as audience members experienced them last year, is akin to watching a wound become a scar, to no longer being in immediate pain but still having to face its consequences. Rather than simply expressing trauma, as Road does, at our ignorance of ‘how that time could turn into this time’, Hope attempts to look askance, at how political conditions ebb into each other – and shows that this kind of looking brings its own discomforts.

Let’s put it another way. Joey’s scenes in Road are an astonishing staging of shame, if shame is understood as the condition of being seen in a state of degradation: he breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience to look at him, as he in turn looks out at their shameful political complacency. Hope, on the other hand, offers a theatre and a politics of embarrassment. Nicholas Ridout (again) has written well on the difference between the two. Embarrassment always seems like the softer, less genuine emotion, as if embarrassment itself is embarrassed at not being shameful enough. This is because embarrassment is the social management of the private experience of shame, a management that cannot stop itself from being publicly revealed: to be embarrassed is to become ‘suddenly aware of being made to appear, of the fact that you have your being through your appearance’ – and crucially, it is a spectacle of escaping that awareness, of working to get on with your life without drawing attention to yourself any more. To blush, for example, is both to acknowledge shame and to attempt to keep it in my face and no further, to allow me to maintain my focus on what I was already doing. Like recovery from corpsing, embarrassment ‘falls short of catastrophe’. If shame roots us to the spot in which we feel exposed, risking and recovering from embarrassment keep us going: indeed, Ridout proposes it as a background condition of all theatrical performance.

The characters in Hope are in a permanent state of embarrassment, crashing from one catastrophe to another but knowing that they have to keep on. The word and its cognates recur throughout the play, from council leader Hilary’s (Stella Gonet’s) fear of being embarrassed during an appearance at a threatened daycare centre, to the councillors’ collective hope that their funds will be increased out of the government’s embarrassment at their climactic decision to stand down and not set a budget. The word ‘shame’ appears only once, but pointedly, and during the play’s wordiest and most explicitly political scene. George (Tom Georgeson), Julie’s father and a self-confessed ‘old-time wire-walker’ who led a Labour council during the late seventies, offers Mark support as he considers whether to organise a mass stand-down. His speech quickly becomes a lament for the collapse of the Labour movement and organised protest: ‘Idealism is dead. Solidarity is dead. It’s been destroyed by pragmatism and hatred and shame.’ It’s a shame that has left George paralysed, admitting that ‘we’ve wasted our time’ and later telling Mark’s son, Jake (Knight) that ‘you’ll never have it as good as I did’.

But the rest of the play identifies our conversion of shame into embarrassment as the site on which solidarity can be, tentatively, renewed. George leaves Mark by asking him ‘to be a great man. And I’ve not the slightest idea what that involves.’ We already know that this is a concern that dogs Mark: Jake reveals that he has a habit of asking his lovers and ex-lovers whether he’s ‘a good man’. Ultimately, with the council disbanded but officials from Whitehall nevertheless descending to ‘make this town functional again’, he claims, ‘I have always tried to do the right thing’, only for Hilary to accuse him of ‘confus[ing] the right thing with what seems right and what seems right is never the right thing’. Performing good actions, and the social management of good things so that they appear good, may dilute some absolute private condition of being good – but they are also the only conditions in which such goodness is revealed. If the fits and starts of embarrassment are the space in which we manage our feelings of absolute shame, they are also the only space, in a fallen world, in which we can sustain glimpses of shame’s absolute opposite: the condition of being looked at and judged worthy, in a state of grace (roll titles…)

This constant need to simply get on with performing, in various senses of that word, in order to achieve grace and avoid shame, was nicely reflected by the decision to have the councillors execute various keep-fit stretches and balancing acts on the edge of the stage as they recited overlapping monologues. It was a rare instance of a Choreographed Interstitial Movement SequenceTM that really works for me (and it’s just one benefit of the swiftness with which John Tiffany directed this production, cutting superfluous scenes and characters, pressing on without scene-changes or blackouts). The councillors looked ridiculous and restless, as if they were executing a caricature of their need to remain ‘flexible’ to people’s needs. But they were also somehow graceful. Their bodies aspired to a kind of elegant movement which did not need conscious control, which could simply be while they recited their lines, like the marionettes famously described by Heinrich von Kleist – just as their work for the council should aspire to the organic condition of a community caring for itself. George dismisses a Labour party whose ‘believers don’t know how to believe any more’, but this condition of never quite knowing how to express one’s belief publicly is ‘where we must learn to wriggle’, to move the body around semi-consciously until we can make it work for us. The latter phrase is Simon Critchley’s summary of the space that Stanley Cavell’s philosophy offers us, a space which denies ‘both the epistemological guarantee for our beliefs and the possibility of a sceptical escape from these beliefs’. Substitute ‘beliefs’ for ‘hopes’ and you get a decent summary of the space that Hope’s characters are in – and, by wriggling within it, those hopes are briefly allowed to appear guaranteed.

A similar kind of grace-chasing convulsion seemed to underpin the effects of the set. As Thorne’s script demanded, it was a brilliant recreation of ‘a 1920s-era council office. The sort of place that has beautiful lead-lined glass windows and ugly 1970s furniture.’ But the central presence of a piano, and of a proscenium stage that slid back and then forward again to start and end the production, also made it smack of a music hall, suggesting that the councillors were ‘on show’, in a corny, humiliating manner. If this sense eroded the general illusion of realism, of a council building in a graceful relationship with its community, it emphasised my sense of being entertained in a theatre, of being in an audience in a graceful relationship with a company of actors. As I’ve kept saying, this play was good fun. Some bedraggled Christmas decorations gave some loveable festive cheer; at one point, a character walked on playing a ukulele for no obvious reason. I don’t normally drink at the theatre, but I bought myself a G&T to take me through the second half…

And, here, it’s worth noting the grace of some of the casting decisions (which, again, distances this production from God Bless the Child). Much of the first half of the play revolves around the threatened closure of a day-care centre, run by Mark’s ex-wife Gina (Christine Entwistle) and used by Laura, played by Jo Eastwood, an actor with Down’s syndrome. The scenes in which the pair recounted their fight against the closure felt like they were closing a gap between mere representation and some form of genuine political action, most directly from Eastwood’s presence but also through devices like having both actors put on the Dalmatian costumes they wore for one of the protests as they described it. Elsewhere, the script made it clear that the black Duncan-Brewster was playing a character of her own race (discussing possible replacements on the council with Julie, Sarwan notes that ‘brown has to be replaced by brown’). But it’s hard to believe that her father, who was a non-metropolitan politician in the seventies and is played without comment by the white Georgeson, is anything other than white. Maybe I’m naive and need to see more, but this is the first instance I’ve seen of an admirably absolute colour-blindness: a play that wants to engage with issues of race, but does not feel the need to make the racial make-up of either its cast or its characters mutually coherent, and simply expects its audience to run with it, to let all people simply be without worrying about representation. No production of Hope could, by itself, undo the racial tension or the closure of day-care centres that really occur in the kind of town that it represents – but this production is doing something, even if it is inadequate, fitful, embarrassing. In fact, this ‘something’ is the equal and opposite reaction against what Ridout describes as the work of embarrassment, which tweezers open the gap ‘between acting and being, between ambition and capacity, between image (self-for-the-world) and self-presence’, and which denies Kleistian grace. And this counter-work might be just as central to theatrical performance as embarrassment itself.

And this, finally and at last, is how this play solves The Royal Court Problem. I’ve been enjoying Andrew Haydon’s recent return to his blog, and I think his comments on The Fever at the Almeida ring true for Hope as well: ‘the piece refuses to agitate for change, or to suggest that there’s any likely solution to our greed or self-interest’, but this refusal ‘might just provoke small, gradual, tiny, not-self-interest-threatening attempts at change in those who see it’. Such tiny attempts, I contend, are the wriggles of our not-quite-graceful embarrassment. There’s nothing to suggest that the particular audience I was in for Hope are out there, now, making those attempts. George’s cri de coeur against contemporary politics notably got a clap from a single audience member, which died down very rapidly. It’s in stark contrast with the NT Live screening of David Hare’s Skylight that I saw back in July, where the entire audience, both in the cinema and at Wyndham’s Theatre, broke into applause at Carey Mulligan’s heroic speech on behalf of the teachers and social workers who ‘unblock the drains’ of our society – no doubt we were all buoyed up by the public sector strike and the flushing of Michael Gove down the cabinet toilet that had occurred the previous week.

Yet I still think that Hope can work to sustain that kind of engagement in a way that other plays cannot. Road famously ends with a call to ‘come again’, an action which would fix everyone involved back in their postures of shame: the characters on Road will go back to their failures to escape; the actors and audience will come back to the Royal Court, to exchange money for the same semi-palliative dose of watching and being watched. Hope ends (thanks to a to-my-mind judicious cut to Thorne’s text) with the councillors staring out at the audience, back at work after their budget’s devastation at the hands of Whitehall, and asking in turn ‘Can I help you?’, suggesting that change will be made somewhere beyond the theatre, where the people represented by these actors ask those questions and where we can openly answer. I’m reminded of the way that Forced Entertainment discussed their work at the conclusion of A Decade of Forced Entertainment from 1994: there work is ‘optimistic […] even when it’s bleak’ because ‘it opens a space which people fill’, ‘so the optimism is more an absence than anything else’. It is a way of going on. I don’t know why or how I believe in the grace of that audience at Hope last December, but I do – and the wriggles of this review might help me to guarantee it.

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Witnessing the Badger (God Bless The Child, Royal Court Theatre, 20/12/14)

gbtc1CW: links to two pages which refer to child abuse, in 6th and 15th paragraph.

God Bless the Child by Molly Davies was, pretty remarkably, my first time in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court – and I still need to go back to get a proper sense of how it normally works as a venue. The space had been transformed into a scarily-accurate replica of a primary school classroom – a classroom complete with eight eight-year-old children (of whom more, much more, in a minute), running around and playing together as a pre-show. But it was the wall displays which impressed me: indistinguishable as a whole from those in a real classroom, and filled with work clearly produced by the younger actors themselves, there were just enough awkward details to suggest things were ever-so-slightly askew. One of the discussion boards near me explained the difference between fiction, ‘where we use our imagination’, and non-fiction books. The board nearest me was about Sali Rayner (Amanda Abbington), the author ‘we’ve been learning about this term’. It was full of fun facts which delicately marked out the difference between her and the children in the classroom: she goes on holiday in the Scilly Isles; her favourite ice cream is not just vanilla but Madagascar vanilla. ‘We’ in 4N had been reading Rayner’s Badger Do Best books, read a newspaper article about her, and, crucially, been following her new learning scheme. Evidence of this learning scheme was dotted around the rest of the displays. Once the play started, it became apparent that this scheme dominated every aspect of Ms Newsome’s (Ony Uhiara’s) teaching, with its ‘thinking toadstools and listening lilypads’; its scripted ‘conflict resolution’ centring around a stuffed badger toy; its child-led but teacher-centred approach that ended up banishing the lovely TA Mrs Bradley (Julie Hesmondhalgh).

In pride of place next to the blackboard was a display with cardboard cut-outs of all the books’ characters under the title ‘Badger Do BestTM’. The TM sign was visible nowhere else, never mentioned in the play: I’m reminded of the uncanny place that the same sign holds in the script for ‘The Threat of International Terrorism’ episode in Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life, there but not quite spoken onstage. In fact, the whole slightly-off tone is pure Crimp: at its best, this production called to mind the scripts that became Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies and their immediate antecedent, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, in which ‘trouble and chaos and underclass and unrest and broken things’, ‘wars and no jobs’ (all Davies’s words) are already played out in the way that we raise and teach our kids.

And yet, for Molly Davies, the trouble comes not so much out of the mouths of babes as out of the mouths of set designers. One of the facts listed about Sali is that she likes writing in her ‘Summer House’ – and, in her acknowledgements to the script, Davies thanks ‘Michael and Peter Cox for building me a place to write in’. She also thanks her director Vicky Featherstone ‘for wanting to put on such a play, and for never being tempted to use puppets’. I assume the implied ending is ‘…instead of real children to play 4N.’ And herein hangs the problem. Both during and after the performance, I found myself wondering whether this production would’ve been better/more interesting/more committed if it had used puppets, or had pulled a Blue Remembered Hills or… Casting real eight-year-olds was the easiest option, and the most troubling.

The performance I saw barely strayed from the published text, which makes no mention of the kids’ involvement in the writing process. All but four of the kids have at least some previous experience in film, television or theatre. They probably needed it. A large chunk of time is given over to the not-quite-allegorical revolution that they stage against Badger Do Best and the teachers who do his bidding; they carry whole scenes, and perform a lot of those Choreographed Interstitial Movement Sequences With The Lights Half-Down(TM much?). The staging demanded a lot of them and – unlike the Court’s Playtime earlier this year, or its Carpet Time storytelling event in conjunction with this production – didn’t give much of sense that it was organised around their ideas and free-form creativity. They didn’t seem to be having much fun: a scene of them dancing around to Don’t Stop Me Now with Hesmondhalgh in the latter half of the play came like a breath of fresh air.

And their performances were… OK. I saw the production at its penultimate performance, and it’s clear that some of them had worked out how to get laughs and succumbed to stagey delivery. They weren’t helped by the script, which was crammed with the kind of endearing grammatical mistakes (‘keeped’, ‘teached’) which – correct me if I’m wrong? – most nine-year-olds have grown out of. I think my problem with coming to a clearer judgement than this about the kids is symptomatic of a lack of clarity, on both Davies’s and Featherstone’s part, about what function the children were fulfilling as theatrical signs. As I watched the young actors jump through hoops just as the characters they represented were made to by the Badger Do Best system, I felt like I had two options. I could marvel at how polished and well-drilled they were, and thus my response was meant to be ‘Hahaha! See! That’s what the Department of Education’s doing to our children, and you like it! Oh, the irony!’ Or I could find myself waiting for the moments when they inevitably slipped up and think ‘Hahaha! See! The kids just can’t cope with this regimentation, and you enjoy it more when they break out!’ For the makers of the play, rehearsing the kids thoroughly was a win-win situation. It smacks of one of Sali’s first lines in the play, upon discovering how far the thinking toadstools are from the listening lilypads: ‘I love that there is a certain amount of flexibility in my system…’

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Good political playwrights, to my mind, attend closely to the conditions and human resources behind their plays’ production not in the interest of writerly control, but of creating a social space in which any such control can be risked, suspended, generously shared with the other participants: they model an alternative, perhaps even a utopian, life-world. My Best Play of 2013 placed its onstage choir in a situation halfway between the actors (with whom they were performing, whose script they were following) and the audience (alongside whom they were responding): their evident embarrassment at failing to ‘perform’ successfully, according to the script’s demands, both mirrored and generated the audience’s own failure, to sit back and pass disinterested aesthetic judgement. In my Best ‘New’ Play Staged in a Theatre of 2014, a young actor was employed to portray an (adult-operated) avatar in a pornographic virtual world: the script, always teetering on the edge of making the child say something inappropriate, made the whole tradition of naturalistic theatre seem complicit in the very exploitation of bodies that this play seemed to be condemning. The world acknowledged as ‘the place we have to learn to be’, called for at the end of that play, might be one that demands a changed relationship with theatre as well as with social media.

There was the occasional moment in God Bless the Child when the threatened innocence of the child characters managed to overlap, vertiginously, with a threat to the actors portraying them: in a moment of frustration, Ms Newsome scrawled FUCK OFF on her whiteboard and had to erase it frantically as the children rushed in. But both The Events and The Nether managed, where God Bless the Child didn’t, never to erase the spontaneous, non-diegetic condition of the young or unprepared performer: their failure to generate a perfect illusion, and to produce a coherent paraphrasable message, were not just momentary blips, but sustained conditions of the work. In doing so, these plays highlight a problem I have with Nicholas Ridout’s Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, a study I’ve been engaging with for my PhD. Ridout makes only passing reference to child performers but, like the other problems of his title – the actor who experiences stage fright or who corpses, momentary eye contact with an actor, the unanticipated movements of an otherwise trained animal – they expose theatre’s ‘wild remainder that escapes semiotic recuperation’. In Ridout’s Marxist analysis, this remainder is the trace of labour relations not subsumed into the sacrificial exchange economy. At the moment when things go wrong, when ‘grace achieved without visible labour’ gives way to ‘the gracelessness that fails’, we get the chance ‘to feel what we feel about work’. For Ridout, these moments of failure are what even mainstream theatre is all about: it is precisely these ‘side-affects’, the recognition that theatre is a ‘machine that sets out to undo itself’, that give the main affects their value.

But Ridout’s thesis has a curiously reactionary streak. For the most part, the vital breakdowns are momentary and immediately repaired, the conventional bourgeois theatre always working to restore itself. Even the avant-garde work of companies like Forced Entertainment and Teatro Giulio Cesare, in which he interprets the failure as more sustained and the pleasure as lying in ‘watching the wheels’ of the theatre-machine ‘spin’ to no avail, the bourgeois theatre and its associated exploitations remain as this pleasure’s necessary other. Although Ridout is right to deny a conception of theatre as ‘the place we go to experience some ahistorical freedom from work’, he also denies theatre’s status as a space in which an entirely alternative, particular, non-capitalist model for freedom can start to be tentatively worked out, here and now, within these historical conditions if in no other – a sensation like the one that I remember getting from The Events. God Bless the Child, on the other hand, serves as a kind of allegorical illustration or doubling-up, of Ridout’s main idea. The play makes me happiest when the kids make mistakes in their performance, because it marks the fulfilment of those moments in the narrative in which they rebel – and this fulfilment works to delineate a political message, the celebration of ‘revolution’ and ‘acts of resistance’, which Featherstone has built the 2014-15 season at the Court around, and which she hopes will ‘demand’ us as an audience ‘to consider a better future’. And yet the emergence of this message is only possible because most of the time the kids are fulfilling the model expected of them as conventional theatrical performers. The exception ultimately proves the rule.

Ridout’s theatre-machine that succeeds in its failing seems to be bound up in the ‘rather tricky dramaturgy of guilt and redemption’ that Jacques Rancière critiques in “The Emancipated Spectator”: ‘theatre is charged with making spectators passive, in opposition to its very essence, which allegedly consists in the self-activity of the community’. If God Bless the Child is taken as a play which straightforwardly advocates resistance to all dogmatic authority figures, it sets itself the paradoxical task of training both its audience and its cast to rebel. Rancière argues that most established models of political theatre remain caught up in this tricky task. Brecht figured his audiences as transitioning from a condition of passivity to one of engaged detachment, Artaud to one of total embodied involvement. Neither engage with the capacity for theatrical audiences to be always already engaged or embodied, to not require training or be easily trained.

Running at 105 minutes without an interval, God Bless the Child felt baggy and overlong, not least because Davies seemed keen to cock her hat to various kinds of political theatre, while recognising that none really resolved the dilemma that she was posing. The first half was propelled by scenes between Ms Newsome and her headteacher Ms Evitt (Nikki Amuka Bird), in which the former tried to point out the failures of the Badger Do Best system while the latter stressed the necessity of keeping it going in order to secure the school’s finances. This nineteenth-century ‘war between two right claims’ approach to political drama doesn’t normally do it for me, but these were by far the clearest scenes in the play: context was filled in, wider relevance was shown, and the children weren’t present to complicate things. But this naturalism was consistently interrupted by scenes featuring the children alone (set, apparently, in an unsupervised classroom – breaking the illusion in and of itself!) in which they ritualistically told each other scary stories and unthreaded the badger soft toy, as if in a kind of tongue-in-cheek at-one-remove homage to a primal Artaudian theatre of sacrifice.

Halfway through the piece, Ms Newsome goes on leave to recuperate from the children’s revolution, never to return, and Sali Rayner herself comes in to pick up the pieces: the divide’s so perfect I was left to wonder why doubling wasn’t used. Abbington’s performance as Rayner, fine on its own terms and often hugely funny, tilted the whole production away from naturalistic debate and towards self-conscious satire. It culminated in a Brechtian final scene: members of the audience were invited into the classroom and we were, for the first time, explicitly addressed as parents who had come to hear the children’s work – only for us to hear, from the mouth of children ‘look[ing] directly at the audience’, that ‘Sali has the government’s voice and the government has your voice. It only does what you let it.’ But if this was a call to unite in the face of our masters, it was a deeply compromised one: earlier in the assembly, Sali’s suggestion that this event would herald ‘a unification of school, community and Badger Do Best’ left me suspicious of any totalising promise for a new society.

It was only with the play’s penultimate appeal to the puppet, in its penultimate scene, that a way out of this tangle of exhausted dramaturgies became visible. Louie, 4N’s main troublemaker, had finished her final personal session with Sali; faced with the threat of spending her ‘school life stuck in a PRU colouring triangles’, she had apparently submitted; as she left the stage, alone, she turned and asked the puppet ‘what would you do differently next time?’, in the words of Sali’s own scripted ‘conflict resolution’ strategy, and listened for its response. Louis’s rebellion had started when she announced that Badger wasn’t real halfway through a resolution session: now, she accepted that the unreal Badger nevertheless had some kind of real value; that structured processes of public self-reflection – if shorn of their fetishised, authoritarian contexts – could still generate productive results. In doing so, Davies’s play finally gestured towards a different set of theatrical practices that it otherwise overlooked: to the questioning re-imaginative process of ‘spect-actorship’ developed by Augustus Boal and still visible in the recent work of Cardboard Citizens, or to the generous ‘sing if you feel like singing’ spirit on which The Events ended. I just wish that, instead of lacerating itself on its own irony, Davies’s play had allowed its actors and audience to participate in such processes themselves.

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I wrote most of the above in early January, as the Christmas season was drawing to a close, in my mind if not that of the adverts’. One of the curious features of God Bless the Child was its not-quite-failure to frame its debates in terms of a crisis of public faith. As little as forty years ago, Badger Do Best simply didn’t need to exist: his totalising system of ideas, routines and techniques is a kind of substitute for the prayers, liturgies and moral principles provided by Christianity, and which continues in faith schools to this day. If the ‘Trojan horse’ scandal in Birmingham last spring allowed commentators (rightly) to note our government’s deeply uneven and prejudiced approach to determining which faiths make good educators, one of the lacunae in the coverage (at least as I read it) was any acknowledgement that the Department of Education was using this affair to mask its commitment to fundamentalisms of its own. God Bless the Child wasn’t set in a free school, but its story of a government quietly endorsing a commercial author-advisor to roll out a quietly trademarked educational system, gestured towards the principle according to which such schools work. The aim is not to do away with fundamental beliefs in the name of freedom, but to replace them with a fundamentalism that can be concealed: the kind that erects the temples of our neoliberal cities, while others seek to destroy them.

And this drive for replacement won’t go away. As Gillian Rose taught us, we inhabit a broken middle between law and freedom; we can’t get rid of either, but we need a better way of reconciling them than modern society’s invention of laws disguised as freedom. God Bless the Child did, fleetingly, attempt to think through this. If calling the main character Louie (and allowing her to style herself King) allowed a conspicuous nod to one founding revolution of modernity, Davies also introduced a subtler nod to an earlier one: 4N were studying the Tudors, and Louie piped up that Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church ‘cos he needed to be the important one, not the Pope. He changed all their believes so he could do what he wants’. Did Louie’s revolution, and this play, exhaust themselves because they failed to commit to a Protestant-ism characterised by ongoing protest, one that did not resolve into the authoritarianism of a new law or king, one that was carried along by what Rose calls ‘unrevealed religion’, the belief that is inspired and satisfied by no creed or liturgy but which I nevertheless can’t get rid of? In the final scene, as the children cycled through their revelations of just who speaks with whose voice, with each ventriloquist of Badger Do Best being replaced by another, I was reminded of John Calvin’s worry that ‘every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols’. No voice can remain disembodied; no belief can remain unexposed. How do we live with our inability to get rid of idols?

And how do I talk about any of this without framing it as simple nostalgia for a Christian nation, or a faith-based education system? When I reflect on the (often deeply shameful) inadequacies of my old Catholic school, I’m still grateful that I went to a faith school. But is it not time to imagine a different kind of “faith school”, one which is just that – which places at its heart the principle that forms of irrational faith cannot be eradicated, that, like Badger Do Best, they hover between fiction and non-fiction; and that a school is the place where our faiths are undermined and wrecked, re-assessed and strengthened by each other. Such a school might be pluralist, but would not be secular. It would set in place an architecture of rules and guidelines and puppet-idols that always already say “You are doing this, even though you know it will not do. Reform me, wreck me and destroy me if you have to, and not in the name of showing how flexible the system is but out of an insistence that the system is wrong, that only an abandonment of systems allows me to claim commitment to someone who abandoned power”. And yet it remains the rules that say this…

My research has recently been informed by Catherine Pickstock’s “Liturgy, Art and Politics”, a wide-ranging and persuasive argument for the ‘political significance’ of liturgy as a site of resistance – ‘a far more plausible site of resistance than art’, even – against the baroque reifications and unwarranted authorities that characterise modernity. It does so by allowing the most immanent details of lived, private experience to gesture towards a transcendental shared ideal. Crucially, it allows for a vision beyond society as it currently exists, but allows that transformative vision to emerge from within the heart of society, rather than from ‘the margins and the semi-excluded’ which characterise most contemporary discourses of “critique”.  As much as I admire her argument, and despite her claims for liturgy’s capacity to host its own excess and its refusal to be merely functional, Pickstock occasionally seems to fall into a vision of liturgy as a version of Sali Rayner’s supremely flexible system, one that already anticipates every need we can imagine (particularly given her focus on largely Catholic models). She notes that ‘the universal’ in Christianity is ‘only accessible through the various, specific, time-bound traditional customary paths’ – but, in order to work out what those paths are in all their variety, specificity and time-boundedness, we need to be open to error, to lurching from now-inadequate paths to only-slightly-less-inadequate ones, to heading off into the margins who aren’t satisfied by the pre-existing pattern. For Pickstock’s model of liturgy to come about, do we need to articulate and incorporate the ‘negative liturgies’ that bring such liturgy into being? I take the term from Andrew Edgar’s intriguing essay on sport and liturgy, who in turn takes the idea of negative from the wrong path of Adorno’s negative dialectics. Theatre might be another example of a negative liturgy, and so might our schools and universities – and only when we find ways to reimagine them on those terms can are children be called blessed.

Playback: Throwing stuff at you (Gravity, dir. Alfonso Cuaron, 12/13)

…and another old review that I have a soft spot for – in which I start talking about “the spiritual life of things” and life-worlds and Stanley Cavell, in ways that have continued to influence my thinking, even if I’d frame them differently now.  

***

The twenty minutes that precede a blockbuster film now require analysis in their own right. Adverts foreshadow and emerge like cysts out of each other. Pearl and Dean are now themselves sponsored by Maybelline. The latest Shazam-augmented Jaguar commercial had its own trailer telling me to get my iPhone out in readiness (if I had Shazam, that is…)

The crucial point for now is that this commercial ended with the news that Jaguar has developed ‘alive technology’. I’ll leave you to judge the terms on which Jaguar made that claim, but it feels distinctly crass coming before a film like Gravity: one which opens by declaring, in white on black, that ‘life in space is impossible’; one where the threat of death is felt throughout, more astonishingly and physically than I’ve ever experienced in film; one which, in its closing moments, can hit you hard when you realise what you’re watching is essentially the first shot of a living animal in this film apart from Bullock and Clooney. There’s life and then there isn’t, and this film helps you to appreciate the difference that a Jaguar commercial blurs.

Or is it? This reading of Gravity seems to be one that Fr Robert Barron’s is pointing towards. His review should be, to borrow his words, ‘legitimately celebrated’ for the attention it draws to the film’s spiritual core (as should Giles Fraser’s). Amidst all its more literal dangling, the film draws attention to the origin of the word ‘precarious’ – dependent upon prayer. But there’s something I can’t quite buy in Barron’s shift from saying that the film’s technology is ‘marvellously useful and […] beautiful’ to admitting that ‘it can’t save us’: it seems to wave away the fact that his whole experience is technologically-mediated. How do I deal with the fact that the animal I mentioned was probably CGI or at least CGI-augmented? Does Gravity, in fact, show how my understanding of what constitutes life and its value is inevitably conflicted, and vitally so? (Note that my condemnation of the Jaguar ad didn’t stop me from using the word ‘cyst’ to describe something non-living.)

This way of thinking emerges from one of my central problems with the film, one that A.O. Scott picks up on: that its core plot and emotional backstory, particularly as conveyed through the dialogue, is overstated and generally pretty crap. While they’re never quite clichés, and at times supremely touching, you’ve seen Bullock’s and Clooney’s characters before; you can’t help thinking that a stranger, richer film may have emerged if they’d left the backstory at the words ‘I had a daughter.’

Curiously, this didn’t break the film for me, and it’s normally the sort of thing that might. This is not one of those films which requires (or, as is more often the case, simply doesn’t bother with) an emotional core to sustain the sheer technical skill of the action sequences that surround it. It’s precisely the opposite: the scenes of whizzes and bangs in space are the film’s most curious and exploratory in emotional as well as technical terms. The characters’ emotional baggage is simultaneously the weight that the action sequences carry and their necessary counter-weight.

Scott came to accept the extended dialogue during the spacewalk scenes as justified because it fulfilled the emotional needs of the two characters when faced with the silence of the cosmos. But I’d suggest that these scenes also fulfil a shared need of film-maker and audience. It’s not just stranded astronauts who find themselves talking ‘in the blind’ (the synaesthesia’s fascinating in itself), uncertain of whether there’ll be any response: artists do too.

In his introduction to The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell develops his notion of ‘the cinematic circle’ that’s created by directors and critical audiences: directors generate a series of effects on camera both consciously and unconsciously, audiences register some of them, and those which are registered successfully enough become the ones that inform the conscious effects in subsequent film-making. Cavell makes a distinction between mainstream films which unconsciously sustain the circle, and modernist films which consciously attempt to expand it, though I feel he’s too programmatic here: I know many films that do both, and some of the best are those which guide the audience from signals they can respond to out into the noise (or the silence). Gravity’s one of those films (and, for all that Scott talks about it ‘breaking the rules’, it’s hardly Man Ray).

There are moments of symbolism so obvious that they feel, on any normal aesthetic terms, slightly cheap. So no points for guessing what universal human experience this is evoking, bearing in mind what I’ve told you about Bullock’s backstory:

womb-gravity

The other big example is the film’s closing scene (which is in many respects a mirror of this one). But these are best understood as mountain peaks in the film’s terrain, bursting out of and dependent upon subtler stuff. And I mean ‘stuff’: the film generates most of its meanings from the experience of watching all its constituent objects float past you, all the more convincingly when seen in 3D.

So, the shots of Bullock stripping off her spacesuit as she returns to the womb find a quirkier, harder-to-articulate analogue at the moment when one of the tears she sheds floats away from her body, and towards us. (I’m reminded of Andrew Marvell’s endlessly puzzling description of a drop of dew as ‘its own tear’.) Some of the messages in amongst the wrecked ships felt like conscious ones I was pointed towards: forty minutes after Marvin the Martian flew out of the wrecked Explorer, I caught a glimpse of what I assume is his Russian equivalent. Others are nagging ones that are probably just coincidences (or false memories on my part), but which I can’t quite work myself free from – I became convinced that a pen seemed to have, impossibly, followed Bullock from the Russian craft into the Chinese one. The film confronts me with a hermeneutic equivalent of the debris storms that it depicts: a mass that is so locally chaotic that it can distract me from the ways in which it is more broadly predictable, composed of signs that may or may not strike me with varying degrees of force.

In the light of all this, even that backstory becomes more subtle than it first appears. It’s appropriate that the lost daughter is described as dying after tripping over in a physical accident, and that the terms Bullock’s character ultimately uses to communicate with her involve a lost red shoe. Stories are another kind of technology for establishing conceptual control over a contingent universe, one that is imagined as an onslaught of sheer physical stuff. Perhaps, in this instance, both the stuff and our attempts to cope with it can be allowed to constitute ‘life’. (This is true beyond the diegesis as well as within it. I found myself wondering if another stranger, richer film would have emerged if both characters had been blown up halfway through, and Cuarón was left to fill up the remaining time with something totally unexpected in narrative terms – but the technology of plot ultimately never break down. Then again, it’s to the film’s credit that I always thought that it might…)

A few weeks ago, I read Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life. I’ll probably have more occasion to talk about it elsewhere but, briefly, the genius of that play is that it exposes the limitations of a theatre in which character is understood to be the key site of affect, and directs our attention towards the emotional residue that contemporary culture quietly makes us invest elsewhere – in objects, in typefaces and trademarks (the bare bones of ‘character’), in those conditions that we term “silence”. In Crimp’s play, this subversion of aesthetic expectations through the turn away from character is associated with acts of violation and terrorism. Gravity compels us to turn away from character only to turn back to it, with a renewed gaze – a shock which Scott surprisingly explicitly, and Barron and Fraser surprisingly implicitly, term a miracle.

onemoregravity

Playback: …and the world laughs with you (Not I/Footfalls/Rockaby, Royal Court Theatre, 1/14)

A review of a production from this time last year (as I mention, it subsequently transferred to the West End and a national tour) and written immediately afterwards. I include it here, unedited, because it initiates concerns that still inform my research; ideas like these (if not examples from this production) will inform the paper I’m giving at the final Staging Beckett conference at the University of Reading this April.

***

I once joked that Samuel Beckett came up with the idea for Facebook: there’s a line in The Unnamable that goes ‘that would be lovely, my first like, that would be epoch-making, to know I had a like’. I’m not certain that it’s just a joke any more. I was reminded of it yesterday when I heard the phrase ‘like her / a little like’ in Rockaby, currently (just) being performed by Lisa Dwan at the Royal Court Theatre after Not I and Footfalls. I’ve also spent much of the last week reading Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, a work which – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit – I’ve found beautiful and affirming.

rockabydwan

Rockaby’s text describes a woman who spends long days looking out of a private window ‘facing other windows / other only windows’ in search of a similar ‘living soul’, only to realise all other blinds are down and to resign herself to ‘stopping her eyes’ and rocking off in a chair. Its pathos chimes with the Dialectic’s gut-wrenching (for me) lines about ‘pseudoindividuality’ (Adorno-geeks, I’m using the Jephcott translation). In a mass culture which can only comprehend difference when set against a more fundamental socially-conditioned sameness, I am an individual only insofar as I integrate myself conveniently into networks of other individuals. If the network and I are incompatible – if I’m not able to find suitable people behind the other only windows, or if I refuse to believe there are people behind them – I experience social death. Adorno and Horkheimer propose that ‘pseudoindividuality is a precondition for apprehending and detoxifying tragedy: only because individuals are none but mere intersections of universal tendencies is it possible to reabsorb them smoothly into the universal’. Rockaby is tragedy in the face of detoxification by a world of pseudoindividuals, the protagonist’s stopped eyes a muted update of Oedipus’s gouged ones.

Facebook perhaps marks the final triumph of pseudoindividuality, a system in which my likeness and likeability to other people is defined by the extent to which I ‘like’ some of the same things as them. But its triumph is also apparent, perhaps, in a contemporary theatre. Arriving at the Royal Court about half an hour before the play to browse its bookshop, I was struck by the number of young people, dressed and styled vaguely similarly to me, who were there to do the same thing (or to hang out at its trendy bar). The Court, like the other only windows, is evidently a place to see and be seen.

We remove Beckett’s drama from its theatrical context at our peril. It’s tempting to think of him as engaged in an earnest and ongoing philosophical project, one that he simply chose to carry out at times through prose, at times through drama; in this light, his famously strict staging requirements look like an attempt to establish the controlled conditions necessary to conduct a thought experiment. This approach overlooks the contingencies ‘new each day’ that inevitably occur, and which Beckett knew he could never control, whenever the plays are staged before a public audience.

Watching Footfalls – the only play of the three I’ve never seen before – I was alerted for the first time to the uncanny phrase ‘…whom the reader will remember’, probably because, for the first time, I was not reading the text. I’d been looking forward to this performance the most, as it’s the play which seemed to best demonstrate a gut feeling I’ve always had about Beckett’s late plays: that, played well, they can be appreciated perfectly well as ghost stories (ie. they’re fucking terrifying).* At least that’s what I’d believed. Dwan’s performance today, and the audience’s laughter, led me to realise that Footfalls can equally be interpreted at times as a kind of parodic ghost story, with the required ventriloquising of two speakers hard to take entirely seriously.

By contrast, I was compelled to re-engage with Rockaby’s capacity to chill. I saw it six years ago, before I ever read it, as part of Peter Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne’s ‘Fragments’ medley at the Young Vic, where it felt more like a bitter comedy: it was in the more clownish company of Rough for Theatre I, Come and Go in drag, and two of the mimes, and was delivered with a kind of mock-forlorn, even conversational, world-weariness by Kathryn Hunter. This version, with Dwan’s costume and posture seeming to channel Emily Dickinson, subverted all this and achieved something verging on Gothic horror. (And I leave my choice of hyperlinked poem there for us all to puzzle over…)

I’ve digressed. I’m interested in paying this kind of attention to audience response not merely because it’s a good thing to do per se, but because audience reactions are precisely what Beckett’s plays philosophise about and through, in ways infinitely more subtle than those I’ve discussed thusfar.

One of the big surprises during yesterday afternoon’s performance was the first big audience laugh, during Not I. I’ll quote the script: ‘scream… [Scream.] …then listen… [Silence.] …scream again… [Screams again.] …then listen again… [Silence.]’ An audible portion of the audience, whom I imagine had been as unsettled as I was by the first scream, laughed at the second one. It could simply be an example of the kind of repetitive, inflexible behaviour that, according to Henri Bergson, we’re conditioned to laugh at – but it seems more puzzling. I’m still trying to get my head around the Dialectic’s brief comments about laughter, which explicitly critique Bergson: laughter, for Adorno and Horkheimer, ‘always accompanies the moment when a fear is ended’. They condemn mass culture’s ability to generate ‘wrong laughter’, the kind produced by a ‘collective’ of ‘monads, each abandoning himself to the pleasure – at the expense of all others and with the majority in support – of being ready to shrink from nothing. Their harmony presents a caricature of solidarity.’

I don’t know how exactly this squares with the laughter I heard yesterday afternoon. All I’ll say is that the protagonist of Not I also laughs, before she screams (and the script distinguishes between ‘brief laugh’ and ‘good laugh’) – and it’s fair to say that no laughter produced by the audience is going to be exactly like, or produced for the same reason as, hers. It will always be ‘a caricature of solidarity’, a superficial matching of her actions which denies any real sympathy. Insofar as it exposes this denial, both between protagonist and audience and between individual audience members, Beckett’s drama can make tragedy vitally toxic again. The theatre ceases to be a false projection of an assembly of pseudoindividuals all intersecting harmoniously, but a difficult utopia composed from the stuff of real individual experiences. It’s worth adding that this is a concern raised within the diegesis of Beckett’s plays too: at a crucial juncture in Footfalls, a character is revealed to have not been participating in the congregational responses during vespers despite another character having been convinced that she’d heard her – because, during liturgies, we assume everyone sings from the same hymn sheet.

But the Royal Court’s position within mass culture mitigated against such utopian moments in a number of ways. The script of Not I specifies the presence of a silent Auditor, who responds at crucial moments with a curious ‘gesture of helpless compassion’. This particular production either did away with him or worked very hard to render him invisible; the presence or name of a performer playing the role was never advertised in the theatre. If an Auditor had been more visibly present, the gaps I mention above could have been teased a bit more, and that laugh could have been more uncomfortable.

One of the joys of this production was its extended periods of total darkness, particularly during Not I (though, when it did come on, the lighting itself was superb: in Footfalls, the fades were gradual enough to seem initially as if they were caused simply by Dwan turning her illuminated face away from us). Just as silence experienced through the human ear is, in a variety of irrecoverable ways, never entirely soundless, the protracted darkness will have allowed each individual audience member’s eye to make its own adjustments and project halos around Dwan’s mouth in ways that can never be articulated.

So I was subsequently disappointed by the way that the intervals between the plays were bridged. We were kept in darkness, but kept silent by a soundtrack that had clearly been pitched to a designer as ‘something we can put between bleak existentialist plays to remind people they’re watching bleak existentialist plays’: the designer, inevitably, came back with a form of industrial whalesong with very obvious dynamic changes, perhaps inspired by Not I’s references to the traumatic ‘whole machine’. It denied this particular audience the chance to respond to the plays spontaneously, as a real assembly of individuals: would we applaud, or start talking to each other, or sit in fearful silence and start conjuring up music in our own heads? Yes, this might have offended some, and made the start of each new play messy – but I hope my arguments have shown how it would’ve been truer to the spirit of the plays themselves, a spirit that transcends whatever themes the music was banally asserting. It pales in comparison to the other occasion when I’ve seen Not I, as the conclusion to an amateur production of three shorts at Pembroke College, Cambridge: the house lights came up and the audience was left to watch the actor being led in and ducktaped to the back wall, a gesture which could be understood both as mere practical stage business and as a stark reference to the torture that the play seems to evoke.

What happened after the curtain call on Saturday might serve as a coda to all of this: immediately after the applause died down, an audience member demanded an ironic round of applause for the guy in Row C who’d left his mobile phone on during the performance. Well, if his phone had gone off, I hadn’t heard it. Despite the best of intentions, this audience member was winning the afternoon back for the pseudoindividuals and their ‘caricature of solidarity’, by insisting that her personal experience of the show was the paradigm for everybody else’s and deserved a response as such. OK, that probably is reading too much into it – but I remain worried by the various ways in which the business of buying tickets within a privatised theatre industry leads to aesthetic experiences that are poorer, shallower, less strange. The annoyed audience member even specifically accused the guy of ‘not getting the memo’ about his phone – as if we were all in an office in Canary Wharf, not a theatre in Sloane Square. My journey away from the Court took me up Charing Cross Road, through the heart of the West End, to which this production will transfer next week. Thrown ‘out into the world’ of star-ratings and flashy posters for Ghost Stories, I’m worried about how Beckett’s ‘tiny little things’ will retain their potential to shine and to shock.

* I’m reading lots of Martin Crimp at the moment – and it’s on the back of this criterion, more than any other, that I’d argue for the unique depth, among contemporary playwrights, of Crimp’s debt to Beckett. Reading the final act of his latest play, In the Republic of Happiness, frightened me in a way that few other scripts have. Spookily (or perhaps a little too conveniently), Crimp claims that the first professional theatrical production he ever saw was… Not I, at the Royal Court.