ALL OF CHRISTOPHER BRETT BAILEY’S SHOWS RANKED (not including the Made in China ones cos I haven’t seen them): DEFINITIVE AND ABSOLUTELY UNARGUABLE DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT @ING ME

4. This is How We Die

That’s right, all you mothertruckers out there in internet land, This is How We Die comes in at the bottom of the pack. Before you all come for me like a pair of sexed up teens on a priest-murdering motor adventure, let me say that I think TIHWD is a pretty astonishing show, pretty astonishingly performed (no-one except maybe Stewart Lee can milk as much from a microphone as Crispy B). But coming back to it now in the context of the BAC triple bill this weekend, I’m reminded of what Bailey writes in the free sheet for his follow-up, Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight – that the poetry, the ‘fake stuff’, ‘didn’t taste good in my mouth anymore.’ There’s a sense in TIHWD, I think, of a desire to impress, a kind of showmanship. And while that cultivated coolness carries through to his other shows, it feels as though he’s subsequently rejected any impulse to seduce an audience with it. The music-driven stuff doesn’t try to beckon you in – the amps punch air out towards you whether you like it or not. It is, as my friend put it pretty neatly after the show, in service of nothing but itself.

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3. Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight

The most beautiful of the quartet, the thing that really makes this show as special as it is is Lee Curran’s shadowy, stealthy, increasingly all-out ball-trippin’ lighting. I suspect that when he left the stage halfway through, CBB got stage management at BAC to ask the lighting operator to push the haze up, cos boy this show needs it. The performers can’t be present in front of you as real touchable bodies, and the wall of haze puts distance between you and them, makes them images, silhouettes, ghosts, dream-prints, backlit in evil stroboscopic turquoise. It’s darker than TIHWD. There’s none of the surreal humour to ease you into its rhythm, but instead the disembodied death-chant voiceover, repeating incantations – ‘you wake up, you wake up, you wake up, you wake up;’ ‘this is a hell-dream, this is a hell-dream, this is a hell-dream, this is a hell-dream;’ ‘brace, brace. brace, brace. brace, brace. brace, brace.’ If the show is harder to reach into that’s because it’s about failing to reach out – ‘you can’t imagine what it was like to walk to the fridge in his shoes, let alone a mile’, says Bailey in voiceover. The black hole of suicide opens up at the centre of Shotgun, like the central unoccupied stage space the performers wrap around. For me, TIHWD feels uncompromisingly nihilistic, but by peering into the abyss of death, Shotgun plants itself firmly in the land of the living – it feels affirmative, if only in the profound depth of its sadness.

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2. Rated X

The wild card. This is CBB’s free jazz cousin to his usual studied formalism. I remember pretty little of the specific content of this show (weird cos it was only January that I saw it) – some references to Roswell and other conspiracy theories, some vaguely intimidating sexy talk to the audience (via camera). This feels like Bailey having a stretch, experimenting, being adventurous and to hell with coherence, to hell with ‘good’. It’s a mess of tangled wires. It’s FUN! I mean just read this credits list:

Tomas Jefanovas: videos, projections & screens, video synthesisers, audio synthesisers, drones, effects boxes, incense and escape driver.

Christopher Brett Bailey: voice, words, illuminati jazz lizard, saxophone, dance moves, electric guitar loops, effects boxes and sound fx.

Illuminati Jazz Lizard.

ILLUMANTI.

JAZZ.

LIZARD.

He wears a patch of prosthetic lizard skin over his right eye. He deep throats a mic with his saxophone (totally eargasmically). At the end, he and Tomas Jefanovas reveal a motorcycle that’s been hiding behind a curtain and ride off into the night. It’s a kind of theatrical punchline that we wouldn’t necessarily expect from Bailey. The show runs at a short and sweet 50 minutes of high octane verbal parlour tricks and musical gymnastics, giving way to a warm bath of ambient noise – it’s just pretty joyous to watch and hear. It has a messiness and complex incompleteness to it, which I think I value just ever so slightly more than its opposite – conceptual neatness and simplicity (ask me in an hour and I’d say exactly the opposite). Rated X presents an audience with a sparkly constellation whose dots they’re left to join.

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1. This Machine Won’t Kill Fascists But It Might Get You Laid

TIHWD and Shotgun get pretty loud, sure, but never uncomfortably so. BAC hand out ear defenders but the first two shows are no louder – in fact, for the most part very much quieter – than your average rock gig. But This Machine turns it up to fucking 11. It takes a jackhammer to your ears, the kind of noise that kicks the air out of your lungs. It’s certainly the loudest gig I’ve been to (Sunn 0))) holding a close second place).

The band are a kind of distillation of all rock music ever – essence of ROCK – potent, sold in small bottles with pipettes, droplets to be squeezed directly into eyeball. At its core is the worship of the electric guitar. At the start the guitars hang on chains, weapons waiting to be wielded. We begin with a classical, sacred sensibility – the musicians solemnly hit the guitars with piano hammers, and they chime and resonate like gongs or church bells; Bailey prepares his with a steel rod. Then they climb down from their platforms, unhook their instruments, and prepare to rock.

TWO NOTES. jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang / jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang / – – – – – – – – / GRRRAAAOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWwwwwwwwwwww // jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang / jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang / – – – – – – – – /GRRRAAAOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWwwwwwwwwwww

It’s back to basics. Standing on their plinths like the four horsemen of the apocalypse, Bailey, Alicia Jane Turner, George Percy and Ivy Alexander strum out the purest form of badassery possible. For a long time they’re playing just one note, in unison, in insistent semi quavers – we start to get some variation, long sustained growls, rests – the pattern phases. The performers are set around the audience and the pattern is passed around in surround sound, attacking you from all sides. jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang-jang GRRRAAAOOWWWWWwwww

Thee Silver Mt. Zion’s album Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light on Everything opens with the kid of two of the band members reading a short text they’ve written for him: ‘We live on an island called Montreal, and we make a lot of noise because we love each other!’ The overwhelming noisiness of This Machine fills me with love. I maintain that Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight is inherently theatre – it’s framed as such, and operates on the metaphorical level that theatre is adept at doing – but This Machine is a gig (albeit one with a dramaturg), and in this respect it’s not concerned with doing anything but filling you with sound and glory.

It continues in a cycle of three troughs and three peaks. At the final peak, they put their guitars down (Percy’s is flecked with blood – he’s broken a couple picks and a string by this point) and let them continue to push out roaring feedback, while they go and fetch their DIY tools – a circular saw, a drill, a hammer, an axe. They proceed – methodically, efficiently, gleefully – to fucking fuck the fuck out of their fucking guitars. It’s a gesture that has a whole load of history behind it, a mythos and a symbolic weight – but it’s not as painful to watch as smashing a violin, say, rather simply delightful in its excessiveness. Where are they getting four guitars a night from?? How much is that costing them???? It’s destructive, but celebratory. It treats the electric guitar not as fine craftsmanship but as machine – replaceable, functional, unsentimental. It has a job to do, and once its job is done, we rejoice in the death of the machine. The band destroys what it worships (or pretends to worship). It’s a paradox that seems to unite Bailey’s work – that of joyful nihilism, formal excess and excessive restraint, unironic posturing – encapsulated here at its most ecstatically contradictory. It fills you up and empties itself out.

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The rooms where we made stuff happen

At uni, the devised theatre society I help run organised a mini-festival of performances designed for bedrooms in campus accommodation, and it was (somewhat unexpectedly, given how stressful everything else was at the time) one of the loveliest experiences making and watching art I think I’ve ever had.

I stayed awake all through the night before making an audio piece called Watching You Dream of Sheep Without Me, which audience members listened to while watching me actually sleep (and being careful not to wake me up) the next morning. It was a collage of vaguely shaped thoughts about dreaming, sleep, work, rest and the UCU industrial action that was happening at the time.

There were two pieces I didn’t get to see: Rory did a monologue about loneliness, and Emily did an autobiographical performance about the countryside, insomnia, childhood and prayer – the others told me they were lovely.

Nat did a piece called Falling Falling Falling Falling (in love). A one-on-one piece in which you sit opposite each other, listening to the same audio track on headphones – Xiu Xiu’s cover of Falling from Twin Peaks. The first two verses and choruses play through, then it gets stuck on the chorus. It repeats over and over and over and over again. Nat sings along, maintaining eye contact with you, but you can’t hear him. Over half an hour the loop gets quieter and Nat’s voice becomes audible, until it’s just him singing to you. In part an homage to FK Alexander’s (I Could Go On Singing) Over the Rainbow, it made me think about emotion and strain – strains of music showing the strain of the love song in all its glossy production (interesting here that we get the dirtied up Xiu Xiu cover and not the original version); the strain on Nat’s voice (singing out of his comfortable vocal range) becoming clearer and more felt with each repetition; strain on relationships building imperceptibly but surely over time. An A -> B journey and a question mark over two opposed models of authenticity – the real/fake emotion of a love song, and the exhausted performer channeling it. It required a lot of its audience member, to meet and withstand its gaze for 30 solid minutes. More than that though, and this is what has made this day especially rewarding, is the special quality of attention it invited you to bring to it as a friend.

The idea behind the festival was to turn bedrooms on campus – private spaces – momentarily into semi-public but intensely intimate spaces for performance. What I didn’t expect was for it to pull into focus in the way it did the network of friendships I’ve found myself growing in as part of this theatre society over my time at uni. I’m really incredibly proud and grateful to know people as creative, caring and warm as I do. Making art is a method for living – it nourishes me, keeps me alert and makes me happy, and it’s what forms the basis for many of my friendships. There is only the faintest – and almost entirely useless – border between art and life, and on the day of the bedroom festival I was welcomed into rooms as both a friend and an audience member at once.

Maud’s piece was beautiful in this way – it was a piece she’d been working on in conjunction with a woman from Iran, a pair of performances about (young-) womanhood, personal space and waking up. I don’t know Maud as well as I know the others, but she welcomed people into her room – sit anywhere you like, explore, but don’t touch – and invited us to sit together as she went about doing everyday things – watching Netflix, idly applying makeup, eventually getting ready, unhurriedly, to go out – without talking, barely performing, just being present and attentive. Opportunities to be together like that are rare. Art as an opportunity not to be temporarily removed from our everyday relations, but one where those relationships can be recontextualised and given more space to breathe. I’d been rather worried that no-one would come, that it would be a lot of effort for little return, but a small core contingent faithfully showed up – mostly just the people who had made the pieces for the festival – and they were the right people in the room, at the right time. We ended up all making art basically just for each other. That we lost nothing from that, but only gained space for thoughtfulness, is a unique and beautiful facet of the conditions for making that university allows you.

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And here, purely for the sake of my own soppy self-indulgence, are some of my favourite photos from rehearsals and suchlike from the past three years. I’ll miss making things here, and the rooms in which we made them. Here’s to having just as much fun but also filling out Arts Council applications.

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Making CELEBARTION – Clara in fairy lights
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Clara and Ciara before Oregon After the Fires
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A heavily backlit Maya in Glory Days
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Loadsa cardboard for the Brilliant Adventures set
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Tomfoolery in the Speed Death rehearsal room
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‘Yes, Nigel… HELLO?’ – Speed Death get-in
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First rehearsal for Oregon After the Fires
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SEAN is WARIO – at Bacchus sharing night
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Foily Boi makes his first appearance in a Portents rehearsal
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A mid-rehearsal nap in British Art Since 1707
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Emily and Nat in British Art Since 1707
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A Portrait of the Universe tech
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Silent discoing in A Repetition rehearsals
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Structuring a show 101 – To Know How You Stand
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Clara loopin some dronez for CELEBRATION
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A Forced Ents-style assessment piece
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Getting cosy for A Repetition
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Notes before …like there’s no tomorrow
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Good god what were we thinking
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Burning a wardrobe with Siobhan and Charlotte
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First bit of R&D for CELEBRATION
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Making The Community Project
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Building our beloved Wendy House for CELEBRATION

Best shows I saw in 2017

Top ten time! Well, eleven, it seems. Again. Oops.

Listed in the order I saw them, and for the most part chosen, I think, more for how they’ve stayed with me over the course of the year than for their initial impact.

LOVE
Alexander Zeldin / Birmingham REP / January

I cry at films all the time, but I very rarely cry at theatre. I did full-on ugly snot-and-gasping crying during LOVE. It was very much like a film in a lot of ways, painstakingly naturalistic. I’d thought I was deeply suspicious of naturalism, that it was antithetical to the fundamental qualities of theatre, but I realised after this show that maybe I’m just suspicious of lazily-thought-through naturalism as a default form. And when naturalism was not quite enough for LOVE, not political enough, the show did what was required of itself and (quite literally) reached a hand out to the audience. Homelessness is a big problem in the town I live in, and I’d been meaning for a while to start volunteering at a night shelter – seeing this show gave me the push to actually start going.

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With Force and Noise
Hannah Sullivan / Wickham Theatre, Bristol as part of In Between Time / February

When I think of ‘perfect’ shows, I think of a kind of conceptual simplicity – one idea that holds a lot of resonance, and which is pursued to its natural conclusion. With Force and Noise was so simple, essentially a song followed by a monologue, spoken so quietly you have to strain to hear it. Hannah Sullivan, with a frame as small and still as her voice, nonetheless gripped you (me) with a quality of attention so forceful that you couldn’t not reciprocate it. It was a monologue about anger and protest, but complicated by an embarrassment at anger, or inability to feel/demonstrate anger (are feeling and demonstrating inseparable?), which is, of course, everything to do with being a woman. The piece ended with her shaking ferociously, activating a chorus of bells attached to her costume (a sort of jumpsuit embroidered with scenes of protest). It was barely 40 minutes long, but so powerful.

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Real Magic
Forced Entertainment / Arnolfini, Bristol as part of In Between Time / February

Forced Entertainment (specifically the 24-hour Quizoola! livestream) were 100% my gateway drug into experimental theatre/live art and I continue to marvel at and fanboy over them. This show really made me appreciate the skilfulness of their dramaturgy – they’re so good at nudging you (again, me) into the shallows of boredom, right to the edge of a deep sea drop into frustration and then grabbing you by the collar and pulling you back. Proper good stuff. And funny too, I forget how funny it was.


Snow in Midsummer
by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig, dir. Justine Audibert / RSC, Stratford-Upon-Avon / March

To be honest, if I hadn’t been asked to review this I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it. The RSC’s a ballache to get to and, y’know, it’s the *Royal Shakespeare Company*. But god am I glad I did. It was an adaptation of a 13th century Chinese play in which a young saleswoman is framed for murder and wrongfully executed and then her totally kick-ass ghost comes back and conjures a drought and rips her own heart out of the dude who’s been saved by a heart transplant from her corpse and a bunch of other awesome stuff. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig made it into an epic, sweeping play partly about contemporary China, capitalism and climate change, but also a folk tale-cum-thriller about familial ghosts, trauma and memory. Seeing a full ensemble of East Asian actors on a main stage meant a lot to me – it might have been the first time I’d actually felt the visceral thrill of representation and recognition in a theatre. It also had a STUNNING lighting design (Anna Watson *heart-eyes emoji*) and was just really really moving.

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A Portrait of the Universe
Nat Norland / Warwick University / March

Bit of a cheat this one, seeing as I was involved in it, albeit in the loosest of capacities (I came in last minute to point some lights in the right direction). It was a sound performance which consisted of an actor (in gloves and motorcycle helmet, a not-unconscious borrowing from Under the Skin) performing a destructive ritual, smashing hand-made clay figures with various DIY tools into a microphone, with the resultant recordings looped and fed back so as to interact with the resonant frequencies of the room and degrade over time into non-specific-sounding tones (see Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room), all of this over playback of a sine wave gradually morphing into white noise over the course of an hour. It was a meditation on decay and entropy – an attempt to represent the entire history and future of the universe. The actual performance was brilliantly chaotic – about a million things went wrong (knobs turned too high, vigorous smashing nearly pushing the laptop off the edge of the table) which resulted in a few necessary intrusions on Nat’s part into this highly formal, aesthetically rigid ritual. Surprisingly, the show was very hospitable to these moments of indiscrete stage management – it should by all accounts have failed the cat test (or more accurately here, the Nat test) but for some reason passed with distinction.

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A Room for All Our Tomorrows
Igor and Moreno / Dance Xchange, Birmingham / March

This is the second show I’ve seen by these guys and honestly they’re fucking incredible. In Idiot-Syncrasy they spent the whole show jumping, and here for the first half-hour they’re constantly shouting/screaming while they dance, and then they neck like 6 shots of coffee each (they’re still screaming while they try to work the Nespresso machine, like they’re horrified by this obscene contraption – it’s hilarious) and then the table TURNS INTO A PIANO and then they KISS but WHILST SINGING AND PLAYING THE PIANO and their VOICES RESONATE IN EACH OTHER’S VOICE BOXES AND MAKE THIS COOL DRONING SOUND (you too can do this at home with a willing participant – would 10/10 recommend). I have no dance background whatsoever and often find contemporary dance (well, any dance I suppose – I just don’t ever go to ballets) difficult to read – I don’t understand the signs. But with Igor and Moreno, it’s so rooted in their real bodies (trained, but not obscured by virtuosity) undergoing real things, that it gets you on a really basic affective level. At the end me and my friends were clutching each other’s arms, holding our breath.


vs.
Ponyboy Curtis / The Yard, London / June

This is a tricky one. The show was utterly beautiful. The ending where they sprinted towards the audience again and again was heart-in-your-throat exhilarating. By far the best work I’ve seen from Ponyboy Curtis. But my memory of it, and my feelings about the ensemble in general, have necessarily been coloured by Griffyn’s blog post from last month. The Ponyboy project has always been consciously concerned with treading carefully on the boundaries of permissibility, with creating a space where danger can be used productively to enable discoveries. With that, of course, comes risk. Griffyn’s post articulates just how difficult it is to negotiate and talk about harm in a room that actively invites risk, and how difficult abuse can be to detect, prevent and call out, as much in horizontally organised contexts such as Ponyboy as in the hierarchical ones which facilitate patterns of behaviour such as Max Stafford-Clark’s. The question of whether art can be separated from the people and processes involved in its creation has been on my mind a lot recently (this is a quite brilliant article on the subject), and that question is even more complicated here than in situations where abusive artists have more singular authorial control. I think I choose to include the show on this list as a way of being honest with myself that yes, when I think of the show itself I still think of it in terms of my initial affective response, and as a way of thinking through that fact given that abuse is in some way interwoven with the genesis of the show.

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Katie and Pip
Tin Can People / C Venues, Edinburgh / August

Rob, one half of Tin Can People, has a little sister called Katie who has Type 1 diabetes. Pip is a medical alert assistance dog, who wakes Katie at night if her blood sugar levels go too low or too high. The show was made with, and featured, both Katie and Pip. It was one of those shows where form speaks to content in such perfect ways it makes everything feel doubly meaningful. Because the piece was about danger, alertness, and the precariousness of life, the unpredictability that came with having Pip on stage as such an integral actor made perfect sense. And yet the tone of the show was also remarkably relaxed. Everything was done with care and a level-headed lack of urgency. The way that the performance accommodated breaks for Katie to check her blood sugar levels. Charlotte and Rob speaking calmly and unhurriedly, like a friendly doctor might speak to you. The way moments were allowed to hang in the air, to settle. Things always prepared for. And that coda in which dog years stretched and Katie and Pip were allowed to age together in an improbably long imagined future life was just… ineffably gorgeous.

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Everything Fits in the Room
Simone Aughterlony and Jen Rosenblit, with Miguel Gutierrez and Colin Self / Fierce Hub, Birmingham as part of Fierce / October

I have no earthly idea what this show was about, but it was awesome. The space they made was really cool – a big ol’ warehouse with clusters of pink and green striplights installed round the edges, a free standing brick wall in the centre which essentially split the audience in half, and a floating kitchen-island with food and dripping pipes and sound equipment on it (?!). The music (by Miguel Gutierrez and Colin Self, the latter of whom frequently collaborates with Holly Herndon which was quite exciting for this particular fanboy), was very good and played at pleasingly high volumes. It could easily have been an obtuse, inaccessible piece of work, but the roaming, inquisitive and attentive audience was a very nice one to be in, the choreography was compellingly strange and I had a whale of a time.


The Twilight Zone
adapted by Anne Washburn, dir. Richard Jones / Almeida, London / December

All the reviews for this were like ah yes they acknowledge that the TV series viewed today looks camp and kitschy so it can’t begin to be actually frightening and I’m like m8 I was SPOOKED. That alien worm on the diner dude’s head was scary af. More than that though, it was a fiercely clever piece of adaptation, framing the TV show as a sort of thermometer for American Cold War anxiety and making it speak to the contemporary world while barely doing anything to the actual scripts apart from chopping and splicing them. Watching it, I assumed the nuclear bunker bit where they fight over who’s the most American and therefore deserving of access to the bunker was Washburn inserting original text, but no! it’s verbatim an episode of The Twilight Zone. But the way its placement in the show suddenly snapped everything else into focus was no less brilliant for that. See Josh Coates’ blog post for cool thinks.

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MY FRIEND NEARLY DIE
D! 
OVERNIGHT CHALLENGE IN NATIONAL THEATRE
Ally Law, with ‘Harry’ / YouTube / December

No joke. When I watched this I was put in mind of how much Chris Goode likes skaters – there was a post he wrote on Dennis Cooper’s now-defunct blog where he proposed a collection of examples of what he deemed to be exemplary theatre, very few of which were actually pieces that took place in theatre spaces or could be conventionally labelled as such, and one of them was of the Z-Boys or something similar. My memory’s a bit hazy here so soz to him if this is totally wrong, but I think it was something to do with the way skaters effortlessly reconfigure public space and stage acts of ensemble improvisation, with a sort of skilful imagination and liveness of the kind that the most avant-garde of performance makers dream and frequently fall short of. And watching these guys scale the Olivier fly tower, there’s the same kind of energy to it. It’s the most fuckin live thing you’ve ever seen in a theatre. REAL BLOOD, Marina Abramovic style. But also there’s this thing of, these guys clearly don’t have any interest in theatre, they’ve just picked the National cos it’s the only place still open, but they get in the Olivier and it’s… exciting. Cos theatres are kind of cool places, just architecturally. And there they are, doing backflips on the set of Follies, invigorated by the theatre and invigorating the theatre (I’ve not seen Follies, everyone seems to like it and whatever but I doubt it’s as cool as this). That loose bar – I don’t know whether or not it’s meant to be loose like that, but if it’s not then it would seem to stand that no-one’s touched it for a while – these guys test it, and it’s like the theatre is physically testing them in return. It’s this beautiful meeting in the middle, where both parties are blissfully unacquainted with the other, encountering each other with just-born eyes.

The best piece of theatre I’ve seen this year.

 

Special mentions to:

OUT by Rachael Young and Dwayne Anthony
Situation with Outstretched Arm by Oliver Zahn
Nothing is Coming, the Pixels are Huge by Theatre 42
Five Encounters on a Site Called Craigslist by YESYESNONO
The Shape of the Pain by Rachel Bagshaw and Chris Thorpe
Anyone’s Guess How We Got Here by Barrel Organ
The Foley Explosion by Julie Rose Bower
On Ice by Suzanne Grotenhuis
Kingdom Come by Gemma Brockis and Wendy Hubbard
Barber Shop Chronicles by Inua Ellams, dir. Bijan Sheibani

Maladies and men

A group of men sat in the back of a pickup truck. Soldiers, with no very serious war to go to. Most of them are young. One looks has his sleeves rolled up higher than the rest. Another has thin cheeks, looks like a kid. One, tubby and moustached, puts his head on another’s arm affectionately. One of them has handsome, movie-star looks. A hard, dark-skinned man with good posture holds his rifle and stares into the camera. Many of them are asleep, hair fluttering in the breeze as the truck takes them wherever they’re going. It’s a hot day but the wind is cool.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul likes his camera on moving vehicles. Moments before, the camera has driven past a group of boys kicking someone on the pavement – one of them breaks off to chase the car down the road, throws a bottle at the camera. Is this staged or just something the camera crew happened to shoot?

The film in question, Tropical Malady, is probably my favourite film of all time. At the very least it’s what I’d say was my favourite film if you asked me. It’s a film about two young men, Tong and Keng, both ex-soldiers, looking for work with nothing much to do, who fall in love. It’s about men, intimacy and the violence that can be contained within the smallest and tenderest of gestures.

I think back to me and my school-friends, in the military cadets (it’s compulsory for teenage boys in Thailand), bored with sitting cross-legged on the hot gravel on Saturday mornings. The men on the truck are men I know from that experience – men who for the most part wanted to be there about as much as we did – and the intimacy and sleepy easiness they have is one I recognise in my friends. During lunch breaks we’d find a shady spot and lie on the ground, heads on each other’s tummies, a tessellated snoozing formation (we were very efficient nappers, but rubbish at the actual combat stuff). There’s little else you want to do in the midday sun.

The military returns again and again in Weerasethakul’s work. In Cemetery of Splendour, all they do is sleep – they’ve been struck by a bout of seemingly incurable group sleeping sickness, confined to hospital beds in a village in Khon Khaen. It’s a political metaphor of sorts, for a country sleepwalking under its (superficially) benign military government, happy to nap through a temporary lull in what has been a long-standing cycle of political upheaval.

I love those shots of the men on the truck. Seeing it again tonight, projected outdoors on 35mm on a cool, breezy evening, I welled up. There’s something so perfect about the contentment of it, these men – these men who are required to be violent – sharing a moment of silent comfort together. It marks the end of the film’s first half, and the second half changes everything.

The central couple’s blossoming romance is cut short by a complete change in form. The second hour of the film is an almost wordless sequence in which we follow a hunter tracking down a tiger spirit in the rainforest. The hunter and the spirit (in human form) are played by the same two actors from the first half. They aren’t Keng and Tong, but they aren’t not them either. Tong is the shyer of the two characters, with a boyish face, crooked teeth, embarrassed at his illiteracy. Keng is confident, assured, with a handsome smile. But it is Tong who is cast as the monstrous spirit in the second half. At the end of the film he is about to consume hunter-Keng, who is left shaking uncontrollably, bright with sweat and paralysed by fear, staring straight into the camera. The tiger spirit stares back. Just try to tame me, it says. I am savagery and violence. We look into each other’s eyes and it is plain to see that I am in you and you are in me. There is no escape.

All the beauty of the first half of the film – that gorgeously observed naturalistic romance – is exploded into a supernatural laying-bare of the cruelty which inheres in the men who fight for their country. The film opens with a group of soldiers who pose for a picture with a dead body they’ve found in a field, all smiles and thumbs-up and squeeze in a little closer. I think about me and my school-friends and I think yeah, there was a lot of cruelty there.

I’m thinking these thoughts on a cool, breezy night in Bangkok. I’ve just got back for the Christmas holidays. Thank god. I don’t deal well with the cold. I’ll take electric fans and iced tea over scarves and central heating any day. And though I love being back and I love the slowness and heat of the place and the food is good and it’s home, when I’m back I’m always struck at how very different my friends at university are from my school friends. That’s true of a lot of people I guess, and I find I don’t slot back into old friendships so easily now. That’s a lot to do with geographical distance – school-friends are scattered all over the world, we’re never all back home at the same time, so the dynamics of a group are never quite balanced right (it’s the one-to-one friendships that are the easiest to keep up). And it’s the boys I find it most difficult to sit with now, and I think I know why that is. Part of me misses being with those guys, lying in the shade at midday. Part of me thinks it’s good that I’ve left – left behind a situation where being in a place I call home, a place that I love dearly, meant also having to be in a male space and a military space, and having to become comfortable there. I’m not sure I want to be comfortable. Certainly not comfortable enough to fall asleep.


Full film available to watch here (the bit I describe is from 00:52:55).

 

walk pause walk

We start the same way we did before. A rectangular border of clothes, shoes, accessories. They crouch in a circle and spin a bottle. They number themselves. They set timers on their phones. They step out of the space – (they call it ‘the field’) – and begin. They enter the field one by one, pausing, then leaving. Walk pause walk. They enter the field two at a time, meet, slide a hand across a chest, squeeze a shoulder, fall into another’s arms. Walk pause touch walk. This is how we begin.

But where in FCKSYSTMS this happened to a loud, pulsing soundtrack, here there is only the crackle of some static – it sounds like a field (eyy) recording of some kind. Unlike the generous performance space of The Yard, CPT is small, hot and cramped, the audience are sat around the field, and when the boys step outside of it they’re right up against your legs. You get the sense that this is going to be a quieter, more intimate gig than the all-out anarcho-bombast of FCKSYSTMS.

And it is. Most of the show is essentially a performed rehearsal, and moves to the leisurely, spacious rhythms of the rehearsal room. One at a time, the boys select clothes to wear and stand in a narrow walkway demarcated with green tape as the others sit around and watch, ask questions about the person’s choice of clothes, what the clothes feel like to wear and what they might mean to a spectator. Chris Goode wanders around outside the field, observing. He chips in with a thought or a provocation every now again. This is perhaps the furthest Ponyboy Curtis has gone in their striving for a practice which focuses on the building and maintenance of an ensemble and deprioritises ‘finished’ performance – here it’s like we’ve all been invited to observe their process. But there’s something weird about that. I guess the question is whether the trust, the intimacy and the simultaneous safety and danger of the rehearsal room (safety in terms of its privacy, danger in terms of the radical possibilities its particular set of working conditions might open up) is able to be transposed accurately in front of an audience.

To that extent, it’s actually quite impressive how natural, unselfconscious and familiar the ensemble is, and while the pace and cadences of rehearsal feel unfamiliar in the context of performance, it’s certainly never boring. But this rehearsalness seems like it can only be achieved by resolutely blocking out the audience. If the ensemble must behave as they would in a private setting, while 50 pairs of eyes watch them, then surely they must simply ignore those eyes. And I guess that’s the point, to make the private public, to reject the very notion of privacy as a capitalist impulse – here there are no walls or fences, just a permeable border, clothes and tape, things which can be worn and discarded and ripped up. But still, I wonder what this does for the audience. If it weren’t at CPT, in this small, hot, cramped room, I can imagine feeling very alienated from all this. And it can all so easily seem navel-gazing; when one of them says of their choice of clothes, ‘yeah, it’s unlocking something… something physical for me’, you sort of cringe a bit. Well, I do. It’s an example of a way of articulating things that might speak clearly in the shared language of a rehearsal room, but in front of an audience is instantly coloured with pretension and posturing. I wonder if the desire to stage rehearsal, or to invite an audience into a rehearsal, as much as it seems appealing, is sort of fundamentally disappointing for both parties. I’m not sure. I think they just about get away with it in walk pause walk.

After this, Chris Goode returns to his desk to the side and reads a long-ish text (I think it’s a piece of his own poetry but I could be wrong). Music builds and the boys begin to make out, touch each other. And over the next 20 minutes or so all the clothes that they have been wearing and analysing are shed; suddenly clothes don’t matter anymore as the Ponyboys kiss and grope and lick and rub and finger, falling about on the CPT floor, sweating under the lights. A fan in the corner turns on, and a desk lamp behind it gently flickers through the rotating blades. It’s here that the show falls into its stride, going much further than the fleeting sexual encounters in FCKSYSTMS. The sex is now up-close, sustained, less theatrical. If the rehearsal feels like a strange thing to be performed in this setting, the sex feels strangely appropriate. I’m not sure why that’s the case, but I found the latter half of the show to be very lovely.

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I have my reservations about Ponyboy Curtis. The niggling concerns were there after FCKSYSTMS but I find them more difficult to dampen now after seeing walk pause walk. There’s the issue of the ensemble’s whiteness, and I know this is something they’re fully aware of – their latest call-out for performers encouraged performers of colour to audition, so I’ll be interested in what the line-up for vs. at The Yard in June looks like. More troubling to me though, because it seems less easily remedied, is Goode’s role in the project. It seems right that he’s a much more explicit presence in the performance in walk pause walk than he has been in the past, but it also brings out something indisputably jarring about his observational role, his very conscious decision to facilitate but not to participate. It feels sort of wrong, when the five people on stage are making themselves so vulnerable and attempting a level of public intimacy which does seem genuinely quite radical, that Goode should remain in the shadows at the edges of the stage. Perhaps it feels especially discomforting because Goode’s body is markedly different from the ones which he, from his position of relative authority, decides to put on stage. I want to see what would happen if Goode were to join in with the Ponyboys, how that might change the dynamic of the ensemble and the possible meanings of the performance. It might lead to utterly disastrous results, I don’t know. And I’m sure there’s been a whole lot of thought put into this. I’d really love to know what the conversations around the structural organisation of Ponyboy Curtis, around casting decisions and the types of bodies that the ensemble should or could include, have been (maybe it’s that bit of the rehearsal process I want to be let in on). But from a lay perspective, it’s an irksome and persistent itch as I watch them try to build their romantic, queer utopia. I can’t convince myself this is quite as utopian a model as it wants to be.

My 11 favourite shows of 2016

Phwoar, 2016 eh? etcetera, etcetera.

There’s a reason all the mid-December 2016-blaming has got tiresome real quick. Despair isn’t all that interesting, or useful, I don’t think. A lot of the shows I loved this year felt optimistic, hopeful. Even the depressing ones had hope at their core. Cleansed seemed to say, yes, love can survive. Chekhov’s First Play ended with a ‘hello’ – a man reaching out to the audience, offering an opening, some form of affirmation. My favourites were the ones which seemed to express optimism through form – the joy of dancing, the catharsis of noise. As someone just beginning to make work myself, I feel some responsibility to be hopeful, in the work I make and in myself.

So here are the shows that really made my heart flutter this year. Eleven of them, favourites not ‘best’, and in no particular order (could have put them in chronological order of seeing. Didn’t).

ALL IN
Atresbandes / Summerhall, Edinburgh / August

I’m a big fan of the Spanish company, Atresbandes. I saw Locus Amoenus in an audience of about 10 at Warwick Arts Centre, then ALL IN in an audience of about 15 in Edinburgh, and had the best time at both. I find their work really formally interesting and I felt it a real shame they didn’t get much traction in Edinburgh this year. I gather the style and structure of ALL IN was a bit of a departure from their previous stuff; a kind of collage of apparently unrelated scenes that moved from a stilted, off-kilter conversation about storage rooms between two people in black morph suits to a smoke-and-lightshow fanfare, to a long slapstick comedy centrepiece in which everyone wore funny wigs, to a monologue in Japanese (dude in high heels, red morph suit this time, sans wig). It was one of those shows that seeded its themes and narrative (by which I mean a kind of structural logic of connecting motifs rather than an actual Story) threads so precisely and lightly that you left with a real sense of the show cohering as a whole Thing, and sort of knowing what it was About without actually having any idea what the fuck you just watched. I guess watched it in this weird state of pleasant bafflement, which is probably my favourite way to be in a show.


Cleansed
by Sarah Kane, dir. Katie Mitchell / National Theatre, London / May

I mean fuck. Cleansed was theatre that hit you between the eyes. No, it was that torture contraption from A Clockwork Orange that holds open your eyelids, doesn’t let you look away. But not necessarily cos of the violence: for all the excitement around faintings and walk-outs, I didn’t find it queasy in the slightest – it was too theatrical for that. The point wasn’t to give the audience some kind of experiential understanding of the torture scenes, it was simply to state them with a sort of clinical literalism. It wasn’t showing us what it’s like to have your feet ground up, it was showing us that somebody’s hands had been ground up, that that was something that had happened. So much of the play is about trying and failing to access authentic feeling (‘this is what it’s like’) that it felt right that the violence was weirdly affectless. What really got me was the sheer sadness of this horrible, absurd situation, of this desperate need to love. To realise Kane’s world in such forensic, literal detail as Mitchell did was, somewhat counterintuitively, to create pathos rather than shock. It was literalism as a radical gesture. Torture of the heart, not the skin.


Idiot-Syncrasy
Igor and Moreno / Arnolfini, Bristol as part of Mayfest / May

Two men walked onstage, looked out at the audience for a while, and started to sing Sardinian and Basque folk songs. As they sang, they very gradually began to bounce, lightly at first, increasing in vigour until they were lifting off the floor, jumping up and down. Then they continued to jump for the next FORTY MINUTES. They changed clothes while jumping, did shots while jumping, jumped through the audience, traversed the stage and twirled and glided in converging and diverging symmetrical patterns, all whilst jumping. And they barely broke a sweat! It felt utterly joyful, these two bodies in perfect synchronicity, feeling each other across the room. At points they’d suddenly change direction or incorporate new movements after just jumping on the spot for AGES and I was just like, HOW DID YOU KNOW WHEN TO DO THAT were you COUNTING EACH JUMP? Igor and Moreno say in the copy for the show, ‘we started with wanting to change the world with a performance. We felt like idiots’, and there was something almost utopian about the experience of watching these two men be entirely trusting of and dependent on each other. When they finally stopped jumping they spun around, holding each other in their arms, gradually slowing down and catching their breath. It was beautiful and just made me feel very happy.


Walking:Holding
Rosana Cade / Forest Fringe, Edinburgh / August

I think that one-on-one performance is rather unique in the way it can hold in delicate balance a really special act of care for an audience member with an invitation towards exposure or vulnerability. As a form, it feels particularly radical because of that. Holding hands is reassuring; holding hands with, say, a 7 year old child you’ve never met before while walking in a public place (as a man, old enough to look adult, too young to look her father) is uncomfortable, charged with a palpable sense of danger. The simple task of walking while holding hands for just five minutes at a time with people of different ages, sexualities, genders and races made me more aware of myself as a body in public, and as part of a public body. I didn’t talk all that much with the people I walked with until I was sat on a bench with my last partner and found myself suddenly and surprisingly opening up. That felt like I was being given a gift.


Domestica
Sleepwalk Collective / Birmingham REP / October

I like theatre that feels as if it’s been composed with a sort of musical sensibility. The programme for the Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight included a graph of the show as measured in volume against time, and I liked the way that that really eloquently described the shape of the show. Domestica was a chamber suite, through-composed, rising and falling, sweeping you up in its currents. Sammy Metcalfe’s sound design totally made the piece, adding layers of aural information to a dense text and beautiful images (those headdresses tho :O). It was this woozy, hazy dreamscape of fallen angels and Greek goddesses and reclining nudes, all the baggage of history, all the paralysis of the present, all the dread of the future.


Show Off
and Often Onstage
Figs in Wigs / Birmingham REP and Pleasance, Edinburgh / March and August

I seem to be coming away from a lot of shows thinking about structure and shape. It’s probably because I’m starting to get more serious about making work. Andy Field sums it up when he says that Figs in Wigs’ shows ‘seem to follow a totally unreadable, arhythmical logic entirely of their own devising. The journey through a Figs show is like a story told by a seven-year-old, full of false starts, extended diversions and endless repetitions. Meticulously setting up rules and conceits only to totally abandon them. Scenes of unpredictable length crashing delightedly into one another like the Figs themselves endlessly careering across the stage… and it is joyous’.

He goes on to say that this sense of the show containing its own unique world with its strange and hilarious oddities is kind of utopian in its brazen rejection of reality – it creates its own rules for being and lives by them quite happily for the duration of the show, extending an invitation to the audience to be in that space too. Like Idiot-Syncrasy in many ways. I think I’m really attracted to work that opens up spaces for alternative ways of being, and especially to work which does that whilst cracking puns and just generally making you grin from ear to ear.


Every One
by Jo Clifford, dir. Chris Goode / Battersea Arts Centre, London / March

There’s a (long-overdue) unpublished blog post on this lurking in a folder somewhere on my computer, which I think I’ll take a look at soon. So until I get around to that, suffice to say this made me cry. A lot.


Chekhov’s First Play
Dead Centre / Bristol Old Vic as part of Mayfest / May

The bit with the smoke in the handbag! The bit where she kissed the audience member! The bit with the spooky pizza delivery guy! The bit where I didn’t realise that the music was a really slow cover of Miley Cyrus until a friend pointed it out afterwards! The bit where they mentioned Romeo Castellucci (lol). The bit with the seagull falling out of the sky! The bit where a wrecking ball swung down and smashed the back wall of the set and then they went and lit it ON FUCKING FIRE!

Dead Centre created a towering, monumental work in Chekhov’s First Play, and I could write thousands and thousands of words on it, words academic and analytical, but I don’t really want to because the thing I remember most clearly about watching the show is my jaw hurting afterwards from being on the fucking floor the whole time. It was properly surprising, and daring, and exciting. I wanted all my friends who love theatre and all my friends who would say that theatre’s not for them to see it immediately.


FCKSYSTMS
Ponyboy Curtis / The Yard, London as part of NOW16 / June

I hadn’t seen Ponyboy Curtis’s first show at NOW festival in 2015 but I’d read a lot about them, about how a lot of people had felt uncomfortable – been shocked, even. I figured I knew what I was in for and was totally down for 80 minutes of nicely lit, naked young men touching each other. But BOY was it uncomfortable – not cos of the sexy stuff, but just cos it was so LOUD. Music played pretty much non-stop at high volumes (Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs at a hundred-odd decibels is pretty nerve-janglingly weird), and I was held in this constant state of tension, just willing it to be silent for a moment. It was so aggressive in a way I wasn’t expecting, a kind of assault on the audience which just wasn’t enjoyable in the moment.

But as soon as the show was over, it started growing in my memory – a sort of delayed reaction, a developing negative of a show. Now when I think back to certain moments or images – the flash of a camera as they posed for each other, the very visible tech operator responding to improvised action and live-mixing the lights, a man dangling from the rafters, striplights pulsing through haze, a solo dancer in a high-vis trousers, fleeting moments of unison movement amongst chaos, a new face at just the right moment – I get goosebumps.

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History History History
Deborah Pearson / Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh as part of Forest Fringe / August

The Cameo Cinema in Edinburgh is stunningly beautiful. One of those cavernous, ornate rooms that feel like they hold history in them. I feel that especially strongly in old cinemas, though; film being an archival practice, the very purpose of a cinema is to contain and reflect back history. Each screening is a living out of a history, bringing it into the present. A cinema is in constant dialogue with its past.

Deborah Pearson’s show was a gentle, contemplative reflection of a history through so many layers of distortion, distance and translation. Her tongue-in-cheek meta re-subtitling of the 1956 Hungarian film which played from start to finish over the duration of the performance was hilarious, and the way that parallel historical narratives, one personal and one political, slowly emerged, entangled, out of the film was just beautiful. As the performance went on and information was teased out, the film became more alive, more in the present. The bits about Pearson’s difficulty in accessing a sense of heritage, especially about not having the tool of the Hungarian language with which to understand this important turning point in her family’s history, really hit home for me.


Kissing the Shotgun Goodnight
Christopher Brett Bailey with Alicia Jane Turner and George Percy / Ovalhouse, London / October

BUT WAS IT THEATRE???

Some other things I loved but didn’t put on the list due to a self-imposed and entirely arbitrary cap of eleven shows:

(I Could Go On Singing) Over the Rainbow by FK Alexander

O No! by Jamie Wood

The Beanfield by Breach

Quintetto by TIDA

X by Ali McDowall (dir. Vicky Featherstone)

Triple Threat by Lucy McCormick

Cock and Bull by Nic Green with Laura Bradshaw and Rosana Cade

Two Man Show by RashDash

Everyone knows someone named John

Last week I bought and read Annie Baker’s newest play, John. I really, truly love Baker’s writing (yeah I know – join the club, Ben), and I think this is her best play yet. Where her previous plays are pretty straightforward – if immaculately shaped and observed – in terms of theme and what they’re (for want of a better word) ‘saying’, John is far more elusive and translucent. In the play, a young couple from New York, Jenny and Elias, arrive at a B&B in Pennsylvania in the week after Thanksgiving – it’s all kitsch and grandfather clocks and miniature ceramic sculptures and glass menageries and creepy dolls. The proprietor is a small elderly woman named Mertis – kindly and saccharine, there’s something a little off-kilter about her and her house. She refers to one of the bedrooms as ‘a little temperamental’, adheres to this weirdly intense diet that involves taking ‘special injections’, and writes strange incantations in foreign tongues in her notebook. There are loads of these spooky supernatural touches threaded through the play’s otherwise typically naturalistic texture like a bad seam. It makes sense – her other plays have been grounded in tangible issues and experiences; slacker/stoner culture, precarious labour, drama therapy. This one is really about religious experience, and the confusion, doubt and ambiguity that surrounds that subject works its way into the play’s form, makes the play better, more porous, more resonant.

What’s really interesting though is the way the play blurs questions about the presence of a higher power with that of the power of men. The titular ‘John’ refers to unseen presences in the lives of two characters – a man with whom Jenny has had an affair, and the ex-husband of Genevieve, Mertis’s blind friend. In a monologue more eloquent, lengthy and poetic than anything Baker’s characters have ever said before, Genevieve describes how she went mad after John left her: dreams of scorpions, Benedictine monks taking a tour of her brain, an awareness of the ‘the soul of every person and every object that had ever existed’, and then the realisation that these sensations were the work of John, who had ‘replaced God in the celestial sphere’. The longest scene in the play is an open conversation between three women concerning the sensation of being Watched, and the inner lives of dolls – ‘it’s a terrible fate’ to be a doll, Mertis muses. In the play’s ugly climax, Elias, furious with Jenny, takes a doll which has a particular significance for Jenny and threatens to lick its plastic (lack-of-an-) asshole. He does it, ‘half-heartedly’, and looks stupid doing it, but Jenny is left crippled, crying and hyperventilating. To her it’s tantamount to blasphemy; desecration of the most unspeakable variety. When men exert power, something is broken, and what we are shown here are women caught in the crossfire in the battle between God and Man. It’s important that John is the name of an everyman. ‘Everyone knows someone named John,’ says Genevieve. The controlling influence of both men and the celestial seem inescapable. The stuffy, claustrophobic B&B traps the characters like a haunted house, like the skin of a silent doll, like a baffling universe run by men. John-God follows you around whether you like it or not. John-God is present in everything. John-God seeps into every corner of your life and pulls at the seams in unnoticeably insidious ways.

In the play, men haunt women’s lives. They create damage, then leave or die or fade away, and the damage is their ghost. The notion of a supernatural presence isn’t a wholly comforting or wholly terrifying one (Jenny is scared of the doll but has a strange but fulfilling sexual experience with ‘the universe’, Genevieve is tormented for years but finds life after going blind ‘bordering on pleasant’), but it seems to me that this play is partly about reclaiming religious experience, something which has always been authored and transcribed and made into institutions by men, from a feminist standpoint.

Most importantly, this is the first of Baker’s plays in which female characters, two of them elderly, are brought to the fore, in which they alone occupy the stage for prolonged periods of time, in which they are allowed to speak eloquently and at length. This is perhaps Baker’s first explicitly and proudly feminist play.

__________

The day after I read John I went to the Artangel exhibition in Reading Gaol, which features work responding to Oscar Wilde’s famous incarceration there, and on some days readings of De Profundis, Wilde’s letter to his friend and lover Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, written during his time at the prison. I didn’t think much of the art was particularly great, but the weight of history gave a lot of it some sort of resonance beyond itself – all of the art was housed in prison cells, and it felt important to the experience to be able to roam the corridors, pop into anonymous cells at your own pleasure, experience the free-ranging liberty of which many have been unjustly deprived, and also not to know which of these identical cells was Wilde’s. In a tribute to De Profundis, some cells contain letters addressed to people (often loved ones) from whom the writers had been separated either by their own imprisonment or the addressee’s. The one that really caught me was by Deborah Levy, addressed to Wilde himself. This paragraph was my favourite:

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It taps into an important aspect of patriarchy, and more specifically here the patriarchal state, that’s not talked about a whole lot – that as well as facilitating the systematic oppression of women, it is also an instrument of unwitting self-harm. It’s a notion that I saw reflected very vividly in RashDash’s Two Man Show the following night. The naturalistic-play bits of that show are about two male characters, Dan and John, experiencing a ‘crisis of masculinity’, and I think that phrase (or maybe more accurately its ubiquity) implies something a bit pathetic, a bit roll-your-eyes, a bit get over yourself, dude. But the crisis that the characters in Two Man Show  experience is not just a tantrum arising from unrecognised privilege (of course, it is that too), it’s structurally inherited self-abuse. It’s a hardening against the harm enacted upon oneself, by oneself. Patriarchy hurts everyone, and it’s a prison cell from which it often seems impossible to escape. It isolates men from one another and teaches them cruelty by being cruel to them. I often recognise myself as part of that system. I catch myself doing and saying inadvertently, undetectably harmful things and I feel terrible. I feel genuinely terrible for being a man.

Near the end of the show, Abbi (who is partly herself, partly her character, John) delivers a long, frantic, raging monologue about being a Man-Woman – a woman who interrupts you to tell you her opinion, who slurps her soup, who claims space – and becomes increasingly distressed and desperate as she does so. Helen tries to wrench the microphone out of her hands. This is followed by a monologue delivered by Helen with uncomfortably perfect measure and poise about being ‘genuinely fine’ with being a Woman, quiet and small, who giggles and does pirouettes, who’s fine with taking the lead but not if anyone else wants to. Sitting in the audience, neither of these versions of womanhood comes across as satisfactory – both are intensely problematic and brilliantly communicate the struggle of finding the right way to be a woman or a man. You don’t want to subscribe to the qualities which have historically defined your gender role, but by rejecting one are you simply capitulating to the other? Is it possible to reclaim your own space and make it good? ‘Just for once,’ says Abbi-John, ‘I want someone to say “be a man” and for that to mean a good thing’*.

There’s another cell in Reading Gaol which is covered in photographs by Nan Goldin of the German actor Clemens Schick, although at the time I don’t know who he is – he’s just a stranger in some photographs. He is always achingly aware of his own beauty, posing and pouting for the camera, but at the same time there’s a strange lack of artifice about the photos. He’s always in his everyday environment; in the doorway to his kitchen, smoking with friends on a patch of grass, naked on his bed, naked in the bathtub, masturbating over the sink. It’s privacy made public. There’s this gorgeously woozy, sensual quality to them, and a sense of real closeness with the body behind the lens. It’s that implied relationship, one half always invisible to the viewer, that echoes inside this cell. Its feels loving, caring, vulnerable, fragile. Like it could break at the slightest touch.

I think about Wilde writing to Bosie, about love and prison walls, about how Catholicism taught Bosie to denounce Wilde and Wilde to treat the injustices done to him as a spiritually redemptive experience. I think about institutions sacred, barbed-wired and invisible. I think about this stranger in the photographs and how free he looks.

Love is a cagefight. Not here, I think, this is different. Can I take my cell, bare and austere as it is, cover it in photos, and make it good?

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* I’m going by memory so that’s inevitably paraphrased