I wake up with my arms wrapped around her. One arm is tucked under her head and the other is curled around her waist. I kiss the top of her shoulder. She makes the tiniest noise and shuffles closer. Her skin is soft and warm. An alarm goes off. She grumbles and pokes her arm out to turn it off. We don’t move.

The second alarm goes off. I pull myself away from her and get dressed, my swimming costume under jeans. I say I have to go. She reaches out for me to kiss her again, her eyes still shut. I climb on top of her and give her a long, slow kiss, so that she opens her eyes at the end and says oh. I kiss her forehead, extricate myself from the bed and whisper I love you before I go. She curls back into a ball and whispers I love you as I close the door.

I walk outside and the air is crisp. Or it’s that kind of sunny mist. Or it’s spitting. Or it’s torrential rain. Who cares, it’s outside. I walk round the corner, through the alley, under the bridge and wait at the bus stop. There’s one other person there and we nod hello because it’s early enough for that to be acceptable. The windows are misted up on the bus and I can see the rising sun filtering through, melting the day’s dew. I get on the tube. It’s packed and sweaty and I can only just turn the pages of my book. My costume is too hot under my clothes and it’s digging in at my side. The journey feels insanely long for the amount of time I’m going to be in the water. I finish my chapter just as my stop comes up and I slide the postcard in to mark my page. I jump off the tube and walk past the ducks and dog-walkers.

She’s waiting outside, reading on the bench. We hug – and it’s still new so I hug her longer than normal – and we say hey to the dogs we recognise. The changing room is still closed so we whip our clothes off and leave our bags on the side near the shower. We walk along the edge and moan for several minutes about how cold it’s going to be while people three times our age slip in like it’s heated. I dive and she climbs down the side. The shock is full-bodied. The cold stings. It’s delicious.

We swim and chat and laugh until our fingers go numb and hold the railing to haul ourselves out. The outside shower is freezing but our bodies barely register the temperature. We dry, dress awkwardly outside and go for a fry up.

We say goodbye – another hug, I’m collecting them – and I get on the tube, then the train. I rest my feet on the empty seats opposite and read more. It’s a good book. I nearly miss my stop. Up the hill, round the duckpond, a quick check in the bookshop, and then big smiles for all the old ladies in the care home. Yes, I am tall, thank you! 

I get to grandma’s room and knock gently to check she’s not asleep. She’s not – she’s sitting on her bed putting her slippers on. I go and sit next to her and give her a huge hug. Frankie’s playing so we sing and dance to him a little, and then we go for a walk- just a short one- round the grounds. It’s sunny now but we still wrap her up warm. We go to the little cafe and get a cup of tea. She tells me some gossip and I show her some photos on my phone.

The rest of the afternoon passes gently and then it’s evening. I meet them all in one of the pubs we like – more hugs – and see who needs a drink. We talk across each other and share all our non-news. The quiz starts. We berate ourselves for still not learning any flags and argue over whether that’s the border of Mongolia or not. Someone displays ridiculous knowledge of some obscure topic and we all squint on the song round, saying we definitely know it but end up not quite pinning down a name. One of us wins a free drink question and we all cheer. We don’t win but we get close and the tension and togetherness is what matters. 

We drink til it feels less cold outside. We sit on some grand steps somewhere in Soho eating sloppy slices of pizza and someone takes a photo. Someone laughs and spills tomato all down their jacket. We part ways and agree to do the same next week. I take her hand and we go back to mine, falling into each other and making up for lost time.

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I started trying to pin down my views on Ulster American and ended up going a bit apocalyptic. Here are some loosely tied thoughts on shows that tackled sexual assault at the fringe because every time I try to move on from them, I keep getting dragged back.

***

In Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Ellice Stevens plays 15 year old Artemisia Gentileschi. She’s a 17th century baroque painter giving evidence in court against her alleged rapist Agostino Tassi. Winding art history analysis and verbatim transcripts, Breach rebuild the trial.

Even though Tassi is the accused, Gentileschi is being questioned. Made to do a lie-detector test, Stevens places her hands into a contraption that’s beautifully portrayed by director Billy Barrett in a way I won’t spoil. Sophie Steer, playing Tassi, leans in. She is terrifying, electrifying. She and Stevens stand, side on, eyes locked, leant towards each other like the edges of a triangle about to touch at its tip. As Steer questions her, Stevens is defiant. She’s telling the truth, she says. She’s telling the truth. She’s telling the truth and this isn’t fair and she’s telling the truth and it’s true. She repeats it again and again. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.

That moment feels stuck on a loop in my mind and it doesn’t stop for the rest of the fringe.

It’s still going as a video of Samira Elagoz plays slowly on a screen in Cock Cock… Who’s There? Her lips are slightly parted, red and shining wet. Cum drips down her tongue. She takes a seat in front of her own image and looks at it for a while.

It’s still going as two men drink large glasses of wine in the studio theatre of the Traverse in Ulster American. One stares at the other in disbelief. The man on the sofa has just said that if he had to rape anyone, he’d pick Princess Diana. I’m trying very hard not to let anyone notice I’m crying.

It’s still going as, after an hour of trying to keep myself awake in an unutterably boring play I won’t name, the actor who has just bowed and said thank you for listening reveals the play is the true story of their assault, and I end up feeling guilty for the rest of the day.

At this year’s Edinburgh fringe, every second show seemed to be investigating sexual assault and the concept of consent, so much so that a whole section of the programme was classified as responses to the #MeToo movement. Some shows used the topic to make skin crawl. They painted the city in bright gold with letters that read THIS IS REALLY FUCKED UP AND WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS. But others did little to challenge or question, using stories of assault as emotional manipulation or simple shock tactics.

Granted, every story of assault is valid, important and stunningly brave of anyone to talk about, with sometimes brilliantly therapeutic effects for having shared it. But I am quite certain that not every one should be made into a play and a paying audience be made to sit and watch it.

I’ve written about, taught and researched sexual assault and consent for a few years. I’m not easily shocked by talk of it and I’m fascinated by ways of portraying it on stage. But this fringe it began to feel overwhelming. I started to wish for days without another show about toxic masculinity or assault. 

There were two stories in particular that I couldn’t get out of my head after the month was up: Daughter and Ulster American. Both caused a significant amount of controversy throughout August. People disagreed about the ways in which the shows could and should caused offence, in the use of laughter and the control of language. I found myself on the extreme end of both performances, loving one and severely disliking the other.

Daughter is a one-man show by Adam Lazarus. It starts as stand-up and devolves into tense drama. Ulster American is a dark satire, a three-hander by David Ireland. Both, I think, intend to attach the end of your laughter with something bitter, questioning how far you should really be finding it funny.

I thought Daughter astonishing (I reviewed it for The Guardian). Lazarus tells a story about his six year old daughter, his wife and his relationship to women. To what extent it is fictionalised is never clear, which is part of what makes it so shocking. It was one of the first shows I saw and one of the only ones to stick with me through the whole month. When people ask what the best thing I saw at the fringe was, this is often the one I mention first. Lazarus’ storytelling is vivid and profusely uncomfortable. It’s incredibly self-aware, knowing exactly how uneasy it makes people feel. I hugely admired too, that the company offered a chat with any uncertain audience members before or after the show to explain what would be/had been discussed. Not everyone showered it with praise though, and Alice Saville’s cutting piece for Exeunt is worth a read.

In many ways Ulster American sets about doing something similar to Daughter. It tells a story of male violence against women through jokes and gritted teeth, becoming more extreme and eventually ending in farcical levels of destruction. Unravelling multiple political and social issues between a playwright, an actor and a director over the course of one evening, it is brutal in both language and action. They hold many similarities. Why then, did I feel so vastly different in Ulster American?

The first twenty minutes or so of Ulster American centre around director Leigh (Robert Jack) and actor Jay (Darrell D’Silva) getting to know each other before they start on their new play. At one point, Jay raises a hypothetical scenario of who you’d rape if you had a gun held to your head.

It’s worth noting any personal experience affects responses towards stuff like this, of course. But I’ve seen sexual assault discussed and performed so many times on stage over the last few years and it’s rarely got under my skin so unbearably. Something about Ulster American was different.

In a podcast I did with Tim Bano and Lyn Gardner, I tried to defend my reaction – namely that I sort of went into shock and cried a lot and desperately wanted to leave the theatre. I said on the podcast that I didn’t find any of it funny. That was wrong of me – it was an overstatement in an attempt to understand and protect my own disgust, because actually parts of it are funny, and some of it later on did make me laugh or guffaw in that kind of I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this way. But for most of it I just felt sick. I felt so deeply stabbed by the audience laughter at the prolonged rape joke, the detail the script went into and the twisting round of words it did to try and justify its place on the stage. Talking for a prolonged period of time about rape to a background of laughter is distressing, and I wish I’d been warned about that before going into the theatre. The whole play felt like the slightly tipsy and overly smug provocateur at the pub who sees how much what they’re saying upsets you, says “just to play devil’s advocate” and intellectually trumps you to force you to admit they have a point, all the while making you feel infinitesimally small and rendering your viewpoint insignificant. In its uppityness it felt like it was devaluing genuine stories of assault.

The audience reaction matters significantly for this kind of play, and perhaps it changed later in the run, but in Daughter the room felt deeply uncomfortable, laughter hesitant and fading as the story got darker, while in Ulster American the unabashed laughter felt emboldened every time the rape joke was mentioned yet again. It felt it was allowing the laughter rather than criticising it.

I wonder if I’d feel differently had a woman written it. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I hadn’t seen the press performance and had read reviews prior to seeing it. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I’d known more about David Ireland’s previous work. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I had never had to relearn intimacy. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I had seen more comedy about sexual assault. I wonder if I’m just being overly sensitive.

But I also wonder if it needed a place on stage. I wonder if a woman would have written it. I wonder if it would get a different reaction if that room was full of an audience of victims of sexual assault. I wonder if that matters. I wonder if we need more comedy about rape. I wonder if we need to embrace the laughter. I wonder if we need to burn it all down. I wonder if my thoughts on this align with anyone else’s. I wonder if the fact that had I been reviewing it for my paper it would have gotten a significantly less positive write up and star rating makes me a better or worse critic than I would hope. I wonder why I still can’t find the right words for this. I wonder if that’s a good or a bad thing.

The loop of Tassi’s trial keeps rolling.

It was going on 400 years ago in that courtroom.

It was still going on as in F**k You, Pay Me, Joana Nastari howled through history

It was still going before the words me too were preceeded by a hashtag.

It was still going as in Chase Scenes, Ming Hon sprinted away from the masculine shadows haunting her.

It was still going while Hollywood blinkered itself.

It was still going as in dressed., Josie Dale-Jones looked to the audience and said, “Men, we couldn’t have made this show without you.”

It was still going while we all read Cat Person and argued over what actual bad behaviour was.

It was still going as in Unconditional, the mother and daughter duo looked at each other and thought how how the world had changed in the two years they’d been making this.

It was still going while incels grew up and grew angry.

It was still going while Elagoz took that video of white liquid oozing from her mouth.

It was still going while Adam Lazarus had his child and it was still going later when he stood blazing in the theatre with lights blinding his audience.

It was still going while David Ireland wrote the scene where they debate whether Princess Diana would have enjoyed it.

It was still going while I slipped into the bathroom and waited to stop shaking.  

This story is not going to get old – not for a long time yet – but the crux of it all is finding ways of talking about it that do it justice. Some shows this fringe really did. Others bored me and felt like a waste of time. And some made me feel sick and want to leave the theatre, saw off my ears and poke out my eyes, chuck pints over the men at the pub who laugh at their friend’s jokes when they’re more harmful than funny, and force every person who has ever sexually assaulted someone to sit in a room and watch each of these shows one after another, over and over again until they get it, until they know each word and movement off by heart, until the sound of the shows starting again makes them want to scratch their own skin off, until they’re sorry, until they say it’s true, until they understand, until they stop.

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Some of my favourite conversations this fringe have been the ones I haven’t quite caught: Sam Ward whispering to a stranger in [Insert Slogan Here] as he dances with them on a stage strewn with candles and cardboard; The things I think I heard in Malaprop’s Everything Not Saved but now, two weeks on, I’m not sure I’ve remembered them right; When they stare at eachother in the low light and the bright noise near the end of No One Is Coming To Save You and they ask eachother – I think they ask each other – if they’re okay; Two debates jumping across each other at a drinks laiden table, new faces trading in shows and ideas; Something whispered in my ear in the dark, turning, tired, what did you say; My friend yelling something to me at 5am, a few of the vowels flying over the music but the rest of it just a blur.

There’s something in the uncertainty of the other half of those conversations, the secrecy or ephemeral nature of them that makes them more exciting than the actual words that fill them could possibly be. That gap, that uncertainty, that darkness, that potential. It feels like the most exciting companies are engaging with that this year – Malaprop, Breach, YESYESNONO, Poltergeist, This Noise, This Egg. The idea of belief and half truths and reality and playfulness on stage. I like the uncertainty of it all.

*

I tell myself I’ll be healthy and organised this fringe. I’ll have days off. I pack tupperware, books, a swimming costume. I join the library.

*

It’s pouring and we don’t have raincoats. She bought a tourist’s poncho and we share. I break a hole along one side for my head before realising the arm hole works too so we walk along, arms wrapped around each other, both of our shoulders getting wet from the unnecessary extra gap we’ve made. The air is cold and fresh and the peaks around Arthur’s seat rise above us.

*

A man gets up during Dice festival to get a pint. The performer draws attention to it, so the guy turns back to apologise. He then scurries to the door and pushes it but it’s a pull door so he falls into it with a bump and by now everyone’s watching him and his face pops with a blush.

*

I think about who you sit in the dark with. I know that I prefer seeing live art with other people, if only to gorge on its strangeness together, but with theatre I often find it distracting waiting on another person’s reaction. As a critic, I’m so used to seeing stuff by myself, and in Edinburgh it feels inevitable. But I’m walking back from Cold Blood, feeling lucky to have seen both it and its predecessor Kiss and Cry, and I’m thinking that one day I’d like to take someone to see a show by Michèle Anne De Mey and Jaco Van Dormael. Someone whose hand I could hold throughout.

*

I feel the lack of Forest Fringe significantly this year. I miss the space, the feel of community, the certainty of surprise. At D&D we talk about whether there is space for live art at the fringe. We decide there is, it just needs another group mad enough to take charge of organising it.

*

There’s a talk at the literature festival that I’ve been looking forward to all month. There are two places in Edinburgh with the venue’s name, half an hour apart, and I go to the wrong one. By the time I realise, I’m too late, and of course it’s raining. The anguish I feel at having missed it is disproportionate to the actual stress of the situation and it’s all a bit much and I think I’ve crashed. I walk home, flop on the sofa with shoes still dripping and don’t move for half an hour.

*

I’m on the bridge trying to push past hundreds of people who seem to mould into one giant fish of a person, gills opening to reveal gaps to slip through, then closing and trapping you in, more tangled than you were a moment ago. I reach the mile where it’s even worse. I squeeze past and go down a quiet street, arriving at a venue where there’s almost no one there. I sit down, out of breath, and let strangers tell me a story for an hour. At the end I cry and then drag myself back out into the cobbled streets. I know I should be used to it by now, but none of it quite feels real.

*

On the last night we go to a friend’s show and I’m expecting it to be good but not quite dance on the tables kind of good, and funny but not proper belly laughs funny. It’s a brilliant surprise and I feel full as we head out into the night.

*

I’m writing on a plane a day after leaving the festival. It’s a tiny plane and we’re up so high so fast, the windows are already spraypainted white. The captain is feeding us instructions. A baby is crying and I wonder what would happen if the captain were to ask it to be quiet. Nothing is crackling and the lights are still on – all in order – but I can’t help feeling the rumble of the plane is an imitaton of Flight’s simulator, rather than the other way around.

*

I cook maybe four times in the month. I don’t take a day off. I have too many meal deals, too much pizza, the exact right amount of falafel wraps. I don’t read a single one of the books I brought and by the end of the month I am getting angry emails from the library about the overdue book I haven’t opened. I don’t go swimming but I do wear my goggles to write my Drip review. I turn up to a few shows at the wrong time or venue, usually soaked in a mix of rain and sweat, and after five days of soggy shoes from the torrential rain a week before, I have to give up and buy new trainers. I’m exhausted. Next year, I tell myself, next year I’ll be on top of it all.

*

I’m walking back across the meadows. The light is dimming but not dark. The grass joins the gravel path. To the right are three boys. They’re sitting on a bench. They look young. My age, I think, maybe younger. Sprawled on the grass in front of them is a middle aged magician. He wears a bright green suit with playing cards stamped all over it. Cards are scattered around his arm too. Perching himself up on his elbow, he says “this is Edinburgh.” I don’t hear the rest.

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Over Christmas, my grandma knitted baubles to hang on the tree in her communal front garden. As people walked past, they’d look up and notice the woollen snow drops. Kids especially, they’re far better at spotting things than adults. They’d grab a sleeve, point upwards and giggle at the tree’s winter gear.

One morning someone dropped a package through grandma’s door. It was filled with chocolate and on the envelope was written: to the neighbour with balls. Every time grandma picked up the envelope she laughed again. She loves that this funny new tradition makes strangers smile, that it can brighten someone’s day. And her neighbour reaching out with that little gesture made a big difference to her too.

Two fifths of older people say TV is their main form of company, roughly two million adults say they can go a week without having any contact with anyone, and nine million adults in the UK say they are often or always lonely. I’m currently working in a bookshop and occasionally I’ll speak to a customer and wonder if that’s the only conversation they’ve had all day.

Social contact can reduce physical pain and loneliness can enhance it. It guts us mentally and physically, and it’s not just the elderly who are suffering from it. Dozens of reports demonstrate that those in their twenties are more likely to suffer from loneliness than those in the fifties, predominantly brought on by lack of stability through the housing crisis, the economy and the job market (social media is at the centre of many of these conversations too). The government’s recent installation of Tracey Crouch as the Minister for Loneliness suggests intent to take this modern disease seriously and to create platforms of support.

In the period immediately after University it is hard not to feel a bit lonely. After the bustle of being busy every day, being part of multiple clubs and communities and different groups of friends, all fifteen minutes apart, you suddenly feel thrown into the ether with nothing to grab onto. It’s hard not to feel a little bit emptier.

If you haven’t got a job lined up you might move back home but your friends might be doing a course a year longer than yours or a year abroad. You might one day google how to make friends as an adult and it might not seem like anyone has the answers. Your family might largely cook and clean for you so you might revert back to an ungrateful, complacent teenager. You might worry constantly about finding a job, get 43 rejections and then give up. You might take up running for a week and then decide you’re doing a marathon so that you have purpose. Then you might get a job in catering and learn that you should only ever love someone who is kind to customer service staff and that you’re too tired to train for that marathon.

Everyone might try to give you advice and you might write a lot of lists and watch a lot of Netflix and half-heartedly fill in more job applications for things so far from anything you’re interested in that you might almost kid yourself that you want to go into data analysis.

Somehow, eventually, it might start to get better and you might get a job in a bookshop that you really like and the job might come with people you really like too and it might feel like a lucky package deal to have stumbled into.

And eventually you might realise that everyone still feels lonely, every so often, some far more so than others. So when you’re working in your new job you might remind yourself every so often that each little chat you have can matter. And in a bookshop, talking about your favourite stories, it almost feels like you’re sharing new friends.

Forgive me. During university it’s easy to fall out of love with reading because you have to do it. There are deadlines and essays with print too small and PDFs you can’t turn round so you have to read holding your laptop upside down, and there are some really dull books that you have to pretend to have read, and you feel guilty if you pick up something for fun when you have so many unread pages for your seminar tomorrow morning. When the freedom of reading whatever and whenever you like returns, and when you’re surrounded by miles of books every day, it’s tricky not to feel romantic about stories.

It’s the tilting pile of books on the bedside table, mutating and growing like ravenous weeds taking over the room. It’s stuffing a book inside a jumper to protect it from the rain. It’s rolling through the tunnels of the tube looking up just enough not to trip as you turn a page. It’s putting a book on the edge of a table at dinner in the place of a phone. It’s the scraps of paper spilling out of pockets from recommendations to read. It’s walking through the shop and knocking over a pile of books and picking them up and feeling that hunger for words and thinking yes these are the ones I want next.

One of the reasons we love stories is that they take us into other people’s lives, so that for a while we can control who we are spending our time with and what kind of characters they are and we can then get lost in their words. If you’re struggling with a new move, or a loss, or somehow a lack of self, those characters can help you feel a bit less lonely. Just like walking past my grandma’s garden and seeing the damp woolly baubles hanging cheerfully from her tree.

Last year Louis Menard wrote an article in The New Yorker about why we read and why we write. He wrote this about poetry, but I reckon it stands for most stories:

“Maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.”

– In Defense of Poetry, Louis Menard, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017

 

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This was originally a review for Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic which was performed at In Between Time Festival in Bristol. The show consists of the same scene repeated, with slight alterations, over and over. And over. And over.

The review was (politely) rejected from publication.

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img_5370I was going to write a post about the most inspiring cultural experiences of 2016, but then thirty nine people were shot dead in a nightclub in Turkey on the 1st of January and it didn’t matter anymore.

I was going to write about Walking: Holding, the play that set my heart on fire, but then a truck drove into a Christmas market in Berlin.

I was going to write about seeing Victoria, the astonishing film shot in one take, but then they burned down the Jungle.

I was going to write about The Grinning Man, the play that made me smile non-stop for two hours but then the world voted, twice.

I was going to write about reading The New Odyssey, the epic true story following refugees trying to reach safety in Europe, but then hate crime rose overnight.

I was going to write about that scene in They Drink It In The Congo where the injustice of humanity hits you hard, but then journalists in Syria posted a photo on Twitter of a bombed out hospital.

I’m not sure how we’re going to navigate 2017. These disastrous events keep happening and we have to keep listening. People are angry and have access to terrifying weapons that can end lives. People are angry and don’t know how to direct their anger in a way that can make things better, so instead they make things worse. People are so angry.

It is, I am finding, increasingly difficult to focus on the artistic and ephemeral when reality seems to get in the way and kick out anything extra. Because what can a play really do in the face of all this?

But then you see a performance or read a book or watch a film that tells you a story that makes you see it all in a different way, and perhaps helps you understand it a little more, or maybe it helps you escape it for a while. And maybe you remember why it’s important again, in this cruel, cacophonous world.

We need to find a way to make art even more valuable, because right now I’m struggling to see it. We need to find a way to make ideas and goodness and hope hold just as much weight as a gun or a sword or a bigoted word.

Maybe that’s the aim for 2017: make each day count for something good, because there is so much bad in this world and we need to know it can’t always win.

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ice

This is how everyone should be introduced to every new city. You should get off a train, close your eyes and when you open them there should be a stranger standing before you with their hand outstretched. They should look kind and a little bit odd. They should say, ‘please can I hold your hand?’, and they should lead you round their city. You should get all of their warmth and their knowledge and you should know that they are protecting you and that they are showing you the ropes and it should feel like nothing in the world could hurt you.

Rosana Cade’s Walking:Holding is a trust exercise, a therapy session, a social experiment and a play. It is really something quite intimate and quite beautiful. (And it’s free).

As I walk along the streets of Stoke-on-Trent, holding hands with various strangers, self-consciousness gradually fades. At first I think how people might see us- what relationship they put on us- but after a while I stop caring. I notice everyone else who is holding hands. I want them to notice us too.

We went on stranger danger days at school. I wonder what my teachers would say as I walk around a new city with people I’ve never met before. I’m pretty sure this isn’t following their instructions. These people aren’t actors, just locals who were willing to do something a little strange, to put their trust in a project and to reach out to strangers. We look at ourselves in shop windows and mirrors. We look at graffiti and signs as if they were written for us. We talk about lunch and life and Stoke and London and theatre and my future and their past and their future and holding hands and intimacy and love and loss and it just feels so open and warm even though it’s beginning to lash with cold rain. We joke and talk deeply and move subject swiftly as I’m handed from one stranger to the next. This is a movie, scored by the street performers and surrounding chatter.

The strangers I walk with are at once entirely individual and a representation of everyone. They are a mixture of ages, genders, disabilities, races, heights and chattiness-es. They all wanted to hold my hand. Some hands are cold and some are warm and some are so soft and some are courser with a firmer grip.

(We go from having our hand held as a child to holding the hand of the person you love to holding an elderly hand with the roles reversed. When was the last time you held someone’s hand, properly?)

An old man leads me through a pub and out into the sunlight on the other side where a marching band passes. We talk about love. He says when his previous wife died it was like when you’re holding hands and let go, and then something stops you from being able to hold hands again. But then he met someone else, who I also have the privilege of walking with. And he learnt how to hold hands again.

Walking:Holding makes you understand the power of a team. The solidity of someone standing by your side as your own little army makes you stand a little taller. It makes you want to cry. It makes you feel so valued.

My hands feel so soft and warm and strong. My cheeks ache from smiling.

Please can I hold your hand?

[Experienced 27/08/16. I went to Stoke-on-Trent for it specially, and it was worth every second of the journey.]

 

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This poster makes Minefield look like an awkward school trip when actually it’s a fucking great explosion that could be the start of a new era of documentary theatre.

*

The bit with the yelling and the smoke and the drums.

The bit with the joke at the end of the therapy.

The bit where you listed what you’ve seen and everything else seems unimportant.

*

Documentary theatre is everywhere right now with a particular rise in verbatim theatre recently, as it’s such a fast way to react to a current issue. This was demonstrated last month with Another World at the NT, showing the impact of young Europeans going to Syria to join IS, and currently with Chilcot at BAC, discussing the enquiry. Rather than using verbatim theatre to respond to a current war, Minefield reflects on a past one. It tells true stories from the mouths of the people who lived them.

Writer and Director Lola Arias- though I always think with verbatim theatre ‘curator’ would be a better title than ‘writer’ as it’s not really your words but anyway- takes six veterans of the Falklands war, three from each side, and puts them on the Royal Court stage.

It is a bit clumsy, but that’s part of the play’s charm. There are elements that feel imperfect; the subtitles could do with some edits, the costume changes are unnecessary and the structure is fairly obvious for a verbatim play. But none of that matters because the total and utter honesty in this play makes it stand out a mile from what has gone before in this genre.

*

The bit with the Beatles tribute band.

The bit with the film of the landscape you survived.

The bit where you were looking for yourself but found one of the others.

*

The dialogue is so casual it doesn’t feel like  watching a written play, it’s more like a show and tell session at school. The veterans speak with a certain distance, like time has formed a protective layer over the most painful memories. This makes it even more powerful, as it maintains the balance between factual and personal, preventing it from turning into any sort of sob story. That is not to say emotions are not shown, they are raw despite the passing of time. Each man lets down his guard slightly, some more than others, one- I feel- entirely. It is a privilege to be allowed into their histories.

This is a play that takes people who would have shot each other had they met several years ago, and today hold hands and bow together. At least I think they did, I couldn’t really see at the end through all the tears.

*

The bit with the strip tease.

The bit with the minefield.

The bit where you knelt at the front of the stage with the dead body while you told us the story of the man who might have been about to surrender.

Seen 7/06/16 Royal Court Downstairs

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Abi.gifJóhann Jóhannsson – Forces Of Attraction

Portraits in Motion is a theatrical version of Humans of New York. Volker Gerling goes on long walks in Germany and gets by via the kindness of strangers. He photographs these people he meets and then makes the photographs into flipbooks, which he develops by hand. In his play, which is actually more of an explanation than a performance, he shows us his travelling exhibition, telling us stories of the strangers he meets on his travels. I saw it as part of Mayfest, the theatre festival that takes over Bristol for a snippet of Spring.

A week after seeing Portraits in Motion I learnt about the suicide of a girl from my school. I didn’t know her well but it still seems incomprehensible. She was a person I just assumed in the back of my mind would go on having a life- in the periphery of my own as we were never close- but at the centre of hers. It is awful to think what she suffered, and it is bizarre how the world just goes on when something so devastating has happened.

Gerling shows us each flipbook three times. He does it slowly, the brushing of the pages having the tingle effect of an ASMR video, or that feeling when someone would trace the alphabet down your spine in assembly. As you watch the face in the flipbook, thrown onto the projected screen, and see it break open into a smile you catch yourself, noticing how much you judged the severe face at first, not expecting such a stern person to exude such joy. I guess we never really know what’s going on inside someone.

I don’t mean to trivialise this tragedy by comparing the emotions it causes to those of a play, but in my mind it was a logical link and a way to think about what death actually means. Portraits in Motion makes you realise how much we can miss everyday, how much can be seen of a person in their laugh, and how much we should value those around us. Death, I think, makes us realise similar things. It makes us value our time with those we love more. It almost shocks you into telling someone how you feel about them, how special they are. Seeing this show and hearing this news made me want more memories to keep, more ways to remember people as we part this summer.

It made me want more of a grasp on my friends, I suppose.

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Chicken

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I’m very lucky to have them. I love seeing them laugh.

 

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Note: I know next to nothing about the army. I get the technical details in this from my plus one.

pink

‘We didn’t know it but we were already history.

And history’s what we’ve become.

Not the kind that’s recorded or sung, perhaps,

but history still. Our own, histories of one.’

Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist is a punch in your chest, a stab in your heart, a whisper in your ear telling you that someone is still there even when they’re gone.

On the thrust stage of the Bristol Old Vic are Hads, Taff and Arthur, our three boys, ‘We might have thought ourselves men/ but we weren’t, not yet, not then.’ It’s Arthur, the one with the cheeky smile, who pushes the others to sign up to go to war, so it’s Arthur who takes responsibility for what happens. As we see the three jump from their small life in Bristol to the wide world of war in Afghanistan, it’s hard to compare who they were with who they are after a few months away. It’s painful to think how much healthier they’d all be if they hadn’t left, but impossible to forget how much they grow in ways they wouldn’t if they had stayed.

It feels like you’re watching hearts and minds break. Almost every word is attached to a movement, making the moments of stillness shine. Noting the repetitions of movements for different meanings contrasts innocence and violence, a firework becoming a bomb just as a playground game of war becomes the real thing. Though dealing with such an aggressive subject, there is a layer of gentleness that runs throughout. As Arthur cradles a bird egg he stole before he went to war, the tenderness in his actions makes him seem like a young boy again.

Every moment tingles. The annunciation, the movements that are so precise. The way Phil Dunster’s body ripples as he leads us through these young men’s lives. The way they all look at each other. The lyrical beauty of Sheer’s words have the ability to either spike or flow, merging an incredible clarity of storytelling with youthful cheekiness and military terminology. It never leaves you behind, regardless of your understanding- or lack thereof- of tanks or training bases, of sangar, bluey or Brize.

Based on interviews with soldiers and their families, the thorough research behind the play is obvious. The green is the exact colour of night vision, the sounds are just what it’s like when a bullet whizzes past you, the helmets are the same as the one lying on the bedroom floor I left this morning. Pink Mist gets the sense of camaraderie that draws so many people to the army. Forget Queen and country, it’s about the men standing next to you. There are no limits to the lengths these men would go to for their friends on the field.

It’s not cheery, obviously. But it’s almost more painful when they’re talking about the good bits. The dark humour that they use to get through it all twists your emotions in seconds. I used to think that crying was this unexplainable thing your body occasionally did, but now I think it’s like there’s too much inside you that some of it has to spill out from your eyes. In a book review of Sheer’s poem is written, ‘there is no forced sentiment’ and this is completely true of the stage version. It is honest, open and funny. It is also terribly, terribly sad.

I imagine that Pink Mist has an extra layer of magic performed in its hometown here in Bristol, that it must lack elsewhere. There’s something special about being able to hear about Thekla in the play after walking past it on your way to the theatre.

This story makes you realise that sometimes it takes something awful to happen to make you see just how lucky you are. Count the blessings, not the curse.

Regardless of personal views or personal ties to the military, Pink Mist is a thing of beauty. But if you see it with someone whose future could be being played out in front of you, the play is a two-hour long explosion in your heart, and you might need your hand held for a while after the lights come up.

Bristol Old Vic, 23/02/2016

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Our washing machine sounds like it’s having a heart attack. It’s rumbling around so violently it has actually managed to dislocate itself from the wall and twist to the side, like it’s running away.

***

Two years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe I abandoned my friends to go and see Men In The Cities alone. I got a bit lost on my way to the Traverse Theatre but eventually made it and sat down in my seat. There was a point, when he does this four page poem, this ferocious yell that I remember perfectly, with the music playing and the lights glittering and the fans blowing around him. By the end I thought differently about theatre. My world had just been splintered and I’d sat there as Chris Goode stuck each little piece back into my skin with his words. I didn’t care about the rest of the audience, he was speaking to me. I just sat there and wept. I tweeted afterwards that I felt it should really be appropriate theatre etiquette for an audience member to go up and hug a performer instead of clapping. He tweeted back saying he thought that was perfectly acceptable. I remember using the phrase ‘earth-shattering’.

***

We had only been seeing each other for like a week and a half. I asked him, in a very roundabout way, not wanting to sound too keen in any way at all, if *hypothetically* he fancied going to see this play with me in a few weeks that I’d seen two years ago and was probably in my top 3 of all time. Emphasis very strongly on hypothetical- if we were still a thing, if he was free, if he wanted to go (but mainly the first thing because I’m not planning ahead I promise okay please don’t run away).

Men In The Cities was the hypothetical play.

***

I have seventeen tabs open on an early modern essay I should be writing as well as one that’s ten minutes into The Apprentice but I can’t stop thinking about the feature I want to write, the interviews I haven’t transcribed and am terrified I’m going to lose because I don’t quite understand Audacity yet, this piece that I’m not exactly sure I’m going to publish and the fact that I’m meeting his family in a fortnight. There are thirteen books in scattered piles by my bedside that I want to read. There’s the half-marathon I keep saying I’m going to run. There are the unwritten scraps that are going to make up a monologue, the notes on a play I want to direct, the to-do list that just keeps getting longer.

***

We get a bit lost on our way to the Tobacco Factory but eventually make it and sit down in our seats. Second row but there is no one in the front row. So front row. I assure him there is no audience participation.

That point comes, the poem. It has the same words, the same theatrical elements, but I don’t cry and I get a bit annoyed with myself for not feeling more strongly. For not feeling the same.

I don’t feel shattered. It’s a bit like when I went to see Constellations– the play I had idolised for years, had obsessed over and directed a slice of- and was thoroughly disappointed when I finally saw the professional production. Except that can be written off like a film not living up to a book- you imagine the characters differently, the way they speak, walk, dress, yell at eachother. I had read Constellations before but not seen it. Men In The Cities doesn’t have that excuse. This was my brain escalating what I’d seen so that it could never be as good as I remembered.

When you go see a play with someone who doesn’t watch or make much theatre, its like there’s a pretension radar constantly buzzing. When I first saw Men In The Cities I just felt an overwhelming sense of raw honesty, beauty, something I’d never felt before. When I saw it again I felt uncomfortable at the theatricality of it, the fakeness, the awareness of a pause for effect. I think I felt uncomfortable because I didn’t want him to think that I thought that this was what theatre was about, or my kind of theatre anyway. Which feels like the most horrible thing to say because I admire Chris Goode hugely and am enormously grateful for the way Men In The Cities changed the way I felt and thought about theatre when I first saw it.

I think I needed it at the time. Maybe I’ve changed and the play hasn’t.

***

I’ve found myself craving the London aftermath of theatre. The response to a show in Bristol and in London is worlds apart. I haven’t come across a review or essay on a play in Bristol that has made me want to a) cry, b) run and book a ticket, c) lie down and die because nothing can ever be better than those words so I may as well end it on a high. I feel so jealous when I read such different, outrageous, well written views on shows in London. This by Meg Vaughan is the best thing I’ve read in a long time. I miss the abundance of original criticism that London has, where people use demolition gifs to make a point. I love the argument, the anger, the passion. I haven’t found that yet here. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. (If you know of any, please, please send them my way. I will buy you ice cream.)

***

I went to a workshop with a playwright last week who said one of the best pieces of advice he’s been given was that it’s all about ‘unchoosing’. It’s about making the choice of what not to do, and then the other things will kind of come clearer.

***

The washing machine has calmed down.

***

Men In The Cities second time round was not quite what I was expecting.

But we made it to the hypothetical play.

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I wrote this preview for Every Brilliant Thing for one of my University magazines, Intermission. Unfortunately Duncan Macmillan is too interesting for 800 words so here’s the original article with some added extras.

After several failed attempts at Skype where the ringtone continues even after we can see and hear each other, we eventually get it set up correctly. I’m talking to Duncan Macmillan, author of Lungs, People, Places and Things and Every Brilliant Thing. I’ve never done a Skype interview before but find it makes it far more like a conversation. I can see his books behind him and his mug in hand and hear his crying baby from another room.

He’s in the middle of moving house. ‘I just took on too much stuff. I wasn’t writing for so many years that when people offered me work I just said yes to absolutely everything and then had a baby and then tried to move at the same time. And I don’t recommend doing most of those things, certainly not at the same time.’

***

Every Brilliant Thing follows a child’s attempt to understand depression. At its core is a list, started by the boy after his mum’s first suicide attempt. It begins with

  1. Ice cream

and gets added to at various points throughout his life until it reaches 1 million. ‘The list still has a Facebook group I think. People started their own list there and sometimes when we tour it around people want to add in their own little bits. That’s been really lovely.’ When people contribute their own, the same things come up again and again, particularly ‘hammocks, Kate Bush and different kinds of cheeses.’

Every Brilliant Thing began as a short monologue called Sleevenotes, now Macmillan’s Twitter handle. He wrote it as a ‘thank you and an apology’ to a friend who had been in his previous play but had no words and for the most part had her back to the audience. It became part of the Later series of writer’s performing their own work at Paines Plough, then formed into an art installation and then got taken to Latitude. ‘We really liked the feeling of people just getting up and reading it for the first time and not performing it too much’. Macmillan got Jonny Donahoe of Jonny and The Baptists involved, ‘a friend and a brilliant stand-up comedian’. Having a performer who isn’t an actor gives a play a different quality. ‘It happened whenever I read it, and it happens with Jonny now. People think it’s true.’

Macmillan worked intensely on the research process. ‘There was a lot that we wanted to communicate TED talk-style about depression and statistics and the brain and how moods are defined by chemistry- all this stuff I found really interesting and then you put in front of an audience and its totally dramatically inert so they don’t listen.’ They tested out lots of different ways of staging and storytelling and getting the audience involved. ‘We talked about it endlessly’. As it mixes comedy and depression, it is a difficult show to advertise. ‘From the title it sounds like a children’s play.’

They tested it out in Edinburgh. ‘Hilariously and magnificently, when no one had any faith in it whatsoever, it was reviewed brilliantly in its first preview.’ Later that year Chris Weigand of the Guardian put it as his number 1 show of 2014. ‘Suddenly the momentum rolled and rolled’. It got picked up by a production company looking for a cheap show to take to the Barrow Street Theatre in New York and as Macmillan notes, ‘this is the cheapest show you can find.’ When they went to larger theatres like this ‘it was a big question of how to keep the intimacy, the lack of artifice, without it feeling like a whole bunch of British amateurs had just arrived’.

Macmillan, Perrin and Donahoe felt the need to talk about ‘something really important which we didn’t feel anyone else was really talking about in an accurate or useful way.’ A huge step in the research process was stumbling upon the Werther Effect that explains how suicide is socially contagious. ‘So if you know someone who has committed suicide, that makes the chance of you taking your own life much higher. That was quite a terrifying thing to learn.’ Because of this, a huge responsibility comes with talking about suicide. ‘We will always be peripheral to some crushing loneliness and sadness in someone else and we need to be more alert and empathetic to that.’

‘If you live a long life and get to the end of it without ever once having felt crushingly depressed, then you probably haven’t been paying attention.’

‘I was brought up on a diet of mid 90s theatre where everyone was really desperately alone and miserable and abusive to each other and then they all killed each other in the end. It was all very hard hitting, in your face theatre. It seems a very uncool thing to say let’s all just be kind to ourselves and eachother and look for nice things that make it worth living, particularly in a show that’s trying to be formally innovative. But it did feel like it was a useful thing to say’.

In one of their development stages they gave out feedback forms. ‘It was really astonishing, when we were playing to maybe 20 people, how many had direct experience of suicidal depression’. In New York Donahoe has to make a policy of not going out after the show because so many people stayed around to tell their own stories. ‘He wanted to do it as much as possible but after doing a one man hour long show with so many variables it’s pretty exhausting. Its very emotionally and physically draining, and then he had to come out and talk to 30, 40 people about suicide and he found that quite overwhelming.’

‘I now realise that it’s important to talk about things. Particularly the things that are the hardest to talk about.’

The events around the show can also elevate it. Robin Williams took his own life around the time of their first performance in Edinburgh. ‘As he was often at the festival, and because everyone is a fan, it was crushingly sad.’ Audiences would leave the theatre after Jonny had talked about the ways the  media shouldn’t present suicide, only to see it all splashed out on the front pages. ‘To see it immediately in the cultural moment and to have that immediate frame of reference gave us new purpose.’ Towards the end Jonny, to keep the spirit of Robin Williams in the show, Jonny would often include a reference to Mawk and Mindy or Jumanji.

Every Brilliant Thing relies on audience interaction and improvisation. ‘He makes it so the audience they can’t fail and you’re not being cruel or humiliating that person, you’re allowing them to flourish.’ Jonny is the safety net for the audience. ‘He thrives on things going wrong. The shows where the unexpected happens,’ Macmillan notes, ‘they’re sort of the most magic ones.’ In part it’s down to Jonny’s casting of the audience. ‘The show always gets up late because he’s spending time getting to know everyone in the room and trying to work out who he can call on to do various bits and pieces.’

  1. Planning a declaration of love.

Comedian Josie Long played Sam, the girlfriend, in one of the first shows in Edinburgh. ’She basically sobbed throughout the whole thing, from where Sam is asked to read the list entries from 1000 to 1005 or 6. When she proposed to Jonny she made found a receipt in her pocket and she made this ring and he then wore it for the rest of the show. Moments like that, Jonny is alive to.’

Macmillan mentions another variable that depends more on where the show is being performed. ‘Sam can be a man or a woman which we did quite a lot in New York. Jonny doesn’t often choose male Sams here as it does different things in different rooms. In New York West Village it is radical in a slightly different way. Here’s a show about a gay man where we don’t know his sexuality until 45 minutes through the show, and I’m in love with this person and we never refer to the fact that we’re the same gender. And that was exciting and radical and exciting in its own way.’ He is working on several shows at the moment where those sorts of variables are inherently imbedded in the structure, ‘because I find that thing really exciting as an audience member’.

  1. Knowing someone well enough to get them to check your teeth for broccoli.

In general, Every Brilliant Thing is apolitical. Suicide and depression do not only affect one political party, and the gesture of this show is to be as inclusive as possible. However sometimes in ad libs it just slips out. ‘At one point in the play Jonny asks if anyone has a book. ‘I think it happened in Chipping Nauton. It was quite a small audience, just after the election. He asked if anyone had a book, they said no and he said, ‘this is why we’ve got a Tory government’.’ They cut a line for New York that says there are more suicides under right wing governments. That was fascinating to me, but we decided to cut that line because everything else in the show is very apolitical and if you are a right wing person you are with the show up until that line and its meaning something to you and then you think this isn’t inclusive.’

Macmillan’s favourite number on the list constantly changes. ‘There’s one I really like which was invented by one of the designers I worked with, which is about idioms in real life.’

  1. When idioms coincide with real-life occurrences, for instance: waking up, realising something and simultaneously smelling coffee.

‘I really like the word plinth. I really like bed, particularly at the moment when I’m not getting much sleep. I also really like the very specific ones. I really like palindromes, which is number 123321.’

***

ON DENISE GOUGH, JONNY DONAHOE AND THINGS GOING WRONG

‘The shows where things go wrong, they’re sort of the most magic ones. Hopefully it’s always good because Jonny’s always great and he thrives on things going wrong, sort of like Denise Gough does. Things happening live in the room she’s like great this is what’s happening and can respond to it really well. When traps and furniture doesn’t come up or down in the way that it should she can deal with it, she doesn’t get phased by that at all, whereas sometimes actors go, not necessarily in that show, but they go I learn my track, I learn where I stand and how I go about it, and if something throws me off I don’t know what to do, I’m panicking. Whereas Denise and Jonny- I’d love to just put them I a show together and just give them loads of instructions.’

ON MIXTAPES

‘I also love making mixtapes for people.’

‘How do you even make a mixtape anymore?’

‘Because I’m very old and I have my old technology. Or I love making playlists for people or making CDs,’ he pauses, ‘which are these old disks that old people have’.

‘I’ve heard of them’.

‘I love placing things. And I love how you place things which belong to different genres or categories but somehow collating things and looking at things in different contexts. God that’s a really boring way of saying I make mixtapes’.

ON LISTS

‘I’ve always had a short attention span as you can probably tell from interviewing me. But I also love really really long form novels. It’s just having the time to actually read it. But I love making lists, that’s how I break things down and make sense of them.

There’s something called the list in new York so we had to give the best something and I did the 10 best break up songs and Jonny did the 10 best places to get waffles in Manhattan.’

Duncan Macmillan’s 10 Best Break Up Songs:

(From The Culturalist)

  1. Love Will Tear Us Apart- Joy Division
  2. Against All Odds- Phil Collins
  3. No Children- The Mountain Goats
  4. Ex-Factor- Lauren Hill
  5. Total Eclipse of the Heart- Bonnie Tyler
  6. Someone Great- LCD Soundsystem
  7. I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself- Dusty Springfield
  8. Back To Black- Amy Winehouse
  9. Bring It On Home To Me- Sam Cooke
  10. I Changed My Mind- Lyrics Born

ON LISTICLES

‘I’m way too old to know what that is.’

*I explain*

‘I have no massively strong opinion on listicles.’

‘Fair enough. Let’s move on.’

ON ACTING VS WRITING

‘What was interesting for me at the point of doing the short story [Sleevenotes] for the first time was that I still maybe at that point harboured ambitions of being an actor, and it was a really interesting point of having an audience in front of me but realising that I must more trusted what I had written than my own capacity to act it.’

ON EVERY BRILLIANT THING, PP&T AND EXTERNAL CONTROL

‘With all my writing there’s an interest in feeling like I’m authenticating my own ideas and thoughts and feelings and actually the more you learn that there is no- and I go into this a lot with People, places and things, there really is no such thing as objective truth or the self, when you really interrogate what that is. You’re being controlled by all sorts of external factors and there was something really interesting and empowering about that knowledge.

ON ROBIN WILLIAMS AND PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN

‘[Robin Williams taking his own life during the run of Every Brilliant Thing in Ediburgh] was a bit like working on People, Places and Things and Philip Seymour Hoffman dying of a heroin overdose, and that causing such a ripple in the fellowship, in AA meetings, and so many people knew him because he’d show up at meetings wherever he was working around the world. His death was a big reminder to everyone how close they are to it at any time. Again an enormous talent that everyone loved and it was just so crushingly sad.’

ON ICE CREAM

‘What’s your favourite ice cream?’

‘Vanilla. That’s really boring.’

‘That’s really boring. That’s not going in the interview.’

‘God no. I mean ice cream is partly there as well as a reference to Wallace Shawn. I don’t think anyone else knows that. Wallace Shawn who’s one of my favourite playwrights. He’s an amazing actor too, you’d recognise him from The Princess Bride and Manhattan. I’ve been very fortunate to get to know him over the past few years and his work has always been an inspiration to me- him and Caryl Churchill, so its amazing to be at the same season as them at the Dorfman. But he just loves ice cream and will always talk about that as one of the joys and pleasures of the world. And so that’s sort of a reference to him. And it’s also a pretty indisputable thing. There are very few people who go ‘eurgh, ice cream? No.’ And it’s also the title of a Caryl Churchill play. So there are lots of things that no one will know but little literary references all the way through.’

‘I wasn’t expecting such an interesting answer from ice cream’.

***

After almost an hour of talking about theatre, clubbing and ice cream, an interruption from the police and a debate about the reputation of Drama courses, I have to run off to a lecture.

‘I hope you enjoy the show. It would be awful if you hated it now.’

***

P.S Every Brilliant Thing is in Bristol 6th-10th October. Macmillan used to go clubbing in the space that now holds The Tobacco Factory, ‘like many, many years ago’.

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jane3

Dear Charlotte Bronte,

I would like to apologise for saying Jane Eyre was:

  1. Boring
  2. Dull
  3. Wimpy

And:

  1. Nothing happens for ages
  2. Do people who label things ‘classics’ actually read them?
  3. I wouldn’t want to be her friend

Please accept my forgiveness. You see Charlotte, when I was thirteen I tried reading Jane Eyre. It’s known as a grown up book, a classic, a right of passage. I’m afraid thirteen year old me also decided it was really, really boring. After a month of staggering through it and only getting to Lowood I eventually gave up. I was so reluctant to read it that it stopped me reading altogether. I picked it up a year later and battled through to the end. I’d done it. I was a woman. (It was okay.)

So my feelings hadn’t really warmed to your creation yet. But last night I went to the National Theatre (hasn’t been built yet, dw about it there’s a lot to explain) to see a devised production of Jane Eyre, and my heart is now aglow with praise. It was a preview and there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle about reviewing previews- I would explain but if you’re only present in our time for the length of this letter then Benedict Cumberbatch probably isn’t where I’d start in explaining modern life- so this is more of an appreciation of them dragging me out of my hatred and into something a lot warmer.

The production definitely takes inspiration from Kneehigh, and there are particular similarities to their production of Rebecca earlier this year. Having the ensemble create the story with revealed stage craft and falling into harmonies with the onstage band feels very familiar. There are also similarities with Bristol Old Vic’s Swallows and Amazons, which again had a Kneehigh-esque feel. There was a lovely moment in Swallows and Amazons when someone lay at the tip of a boat with a glass of water and flicked it at the passengers, and that was the sea. There’s a similarly playful feel here, as one of the cast holds up a lamp and twists his hand like flames, and suddenly the lamp is an enormous comforting fire. This production has a great sense of humour.

Madeleine Worrall as Jane has as good a worry face as Nadiya from Bake Off (if we’re explaining life today The Great British Bake Off is crucial). Her defiance makes me want to hug her. “I am no bird, and no net ensnares me.” As she hitches up her layers of skirts to climb up the scaffolding I wonder if the plasters on her legs are part of her character.

Some of the company move between acting and playing music. The score is like a mix of Nils Frahm, Lo Fang, Mumford and Sons and a jazzy lightning storm. I tried to look on Spotify but the decades section only goes back to the ‘60s so I’m afraid those references might be a bit lost on you. I never knew a bow scraping a cymbal could create such a cuttingly sharp sound.

Like in your book, we see Jane grow. The actors transform from children to adults very naturally, not parodying the children at all. It all feels very honest. A corset is added as Jane grows up to give her a woman’s body rather than that of a child.

 “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land some broad between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I’ve a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, – you’d forget me.”

When Mr Rochester asks Jane to marry him it is the angriest proposal I’ve ever heard, so full of love and impatience, before giving her a very beardy kiss.

While some bits flow others move too fast. They feel disconnected and lose their sense of place that so much of this show secures well. I’m not entirely sure about the conscience bits either. But nothing lasts too long, even though the two shows at Bristol Old Vic have been put together for one epic three and a half hour show.

I don’t want to spoil a surprise in the play so I won’t explain completely. But there’s a singer in this production who wears a red dress and exudes enormous strength in her voice. She lifts the production to another level. Listening to her singing Mad About The Boy is utterly dazzling.

The other best bit is the dog. Craig Edwards as Mr Rochester’s dog (alongside the other hundred parts they each play) has the audience under his control as he pants and drops to the floor as a footstall for his master.

You know when Mr Rochester is blind and injured and tired and Jane comes back to him? She doesn’t say anything, she just walks up to him slowly and touches his hands. At first he flinches but then he seems to recognise them and holds them so tight it looks like he never wants to let go. Can you really know someone so well that you can recognise them simply from the feel of their hands? If so that’s a lovely thing to look forward to.

So apologies Charlotte. This girl has guts. I would totally be her friend.

All the best,

Kate Wyver


National Theatre, Lyttelton 10/09/15

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It is hard to look at anyone else when Denise Gough is on stage. I’ve never seen her perform before but I now very much want to again. She just seems so normal, you could bump into her in the street. She is a real human being. She is a seriously good actor.

People, Places and Things is very Headlong. In both Gough’s character’s drug-induced state, and later in her withdrawal phase, things warp and scrunch and flash and clones appear and disappear. They’re good at messing with our heads to show how messed up hers is.

“I was talking about theatre”

It’s about acting and stage directions and the complexity of being a human being and drug abuse and lies and the importance of having someone you can rely on and how everything is easier with alcohol to knock down your inhibitions and numb you that little bit but then it’s also about the numbness of being unable to react to something in the way we feel we’re meant to, like death. It’s about the pretence of acting and how maybe that’s easier than real life. In a wonderful, powerful rant she lists everything that is wrong in the world and says it in a way that makes you think, yes, this is all true. It’s a Men In The Cities-type rage at the world.

I’m not sure I believe in spoilers unless it’s about the end of Rebecca (grandma, I’m looking at you). But if you haven’t seen it maybe skip the next two paragraphs.

She- Sarah, is an actress. (“No, I’m a seagull”). She’s a drug addict. She goes to rehab. She takes a long time to co-operate with them. She goes through withdrawal. In rehab she hallucinates. More versions of her appear from the bed, they climb out like in a horror movie and crumple around the room. She does that really well- she feels all crumpled, like it would take the whole world to get her to stand up straight.

Quotes are dropped in from The Seagull (which Headlong did very well a few years ago. I sort of despise Chekhov after studying The Cherry Orchard but I very much enjoyed their The Seagull), A Streetcar Named Desire and Romeo and Juliet. My History teacher died when I was in year 13 and at our memorial assembly an English teacher read out the same R&J quote they use here.

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night”

For a play about grief, this feels rather fitting. As she says it, giving it as an example of the wonderful language actors have the privilege of speaking, I can see him sitting on the edge of the wobbly plastic chair in Room B, chewing gum and telling us that we can do anything.

I think that’s why I like theatre. It connects you to moments of life. It reflects bits of it at us in a different way as in those distorted mirrors at funfairs or the grubby reflection of the glass on tube doors. It makes you feel things and think things and want to do things. It makes you want to change the world, and it makes you believe that that might be possible.

There’s a word that means the feeling of understanding that everyone else has individual lives and has their own set of thoughts and worries and fears- sonder. This is the kind of play that makes you realise that. This the kind of play that makes you look at the person sitting next to you and wonder if they’re okay, if you’re okay, if any of us are actually okay.

Maybe we should go for a drink and talk about it.

Maybe not.

National Theatre, Dorfman 01/09/15

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2

I sit down in a dark room and I am handed a blindfold.

***

First time round I miss Barrel Organ’s play, Some People Talk About Violence.

I saw the company’s debut show Nothing last year. I had enjoyed it but felt guilty at seeing it after a night out that turned into an expedition to climb Arthur’s Seat to watch the sunrise and then powering through to the next day. So in part I felt I had to see Some People Talk About Violence while fully awake to make up for last year. But I manage to miss it by completely forgetting I had booked a ticket and end up double booking with Manwatching at Summerhall.

So we’re standing outside the Roundabout at Summerhall, oblivious to the fact that I’m wasting eight valuable pounds on the production I’m missing. Then I see him. My favourite playwright. The man I have watched every interview of and read every word of. Nick Payne. My Beyoncé of theatre. I do that kind of excited whisper where everyone around you can hear what you’re saying and explain to my friends how much I love this man. They tell me to talk to him and I’m debating it but he’s turning away so I start to run.

I should have said I’m really sorry to bother you but I just wanted to let you know how much I adore your writing.

I should have said I just directed a section of Constellations at University where we used three couples on stage at once with three AV screens and occasionally the actors would cross over from one to the other a bit like characters in a Harry Potter painting.

I should have said ‘If you give me a balloon I will fucking garrotte you’ is my favourite line in the English language.

I should have said that I really want to direct one of your plays fully but have been told the rights were not available and why is that and please could you make an exception?

I should have said would he feel like making a trip up to Bristol and writing a play for us and we would repay him by feeding him with BTP scones and taking him on scenic tours of the harbourside and buying him fish and chips to eat on the Clifton Suspension Bridge at sunset.

Instead I ramble and say the word ‘love’ about fifty gazillion times and don’t explain anything properly and when I say I’m seeing the same show as him the thought probably crosses his mind to abandon his ticket altogether. (He doesn’t. He laughs a lot. I totally don’t watch him more than the actor on stage, shut up).

I have another fangirl moment as I see Andrew Haydon walk past at Forest Fringe, where Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola is taking place. ‘He’s the Beyoncé of theatre criticism’.

My friends won’t let me have two Beyoncé’s.

***

I’m not with a show and I’m not reviewing. Being in such a productive place for more than a week without being productive has left me feeling incredibly restless. When I go home am I actually going to have achieved or learnt anything from my time in Edinburgh? Yeah I’ve got some good shows to talk about, but other than that? I don’t feel a particular sense of revolution or the desire to be braver. So many shows have left me cold, bored, even asleep. I haven’t seen my life-changer, my this year’s version of Men In The Cities.

And then, just as you stop waiting for a bus to arrive, or the kettle to boil, or the perfect partner to come along, *BAM*, I see three shows in one day that are simply brilliant.

  1. Some People Talk About Violence, Barrel Organ

I rebook, my guilt of almost nodding off in Nothing due to lack of sleep still playing on my conscience. Barrel Organ tell a story of a girl who breaks into a stranger’s house. They tell it through the viewpoints of different people involved in the story. The casting is chosen by the audience at random (not entirely at random, they stay within the same genders). Every so often the story is broken up with games or challenges, a bit like Secret Theatre’s A Series of Impossible Acts. These are violence portrayed as fun. We laugh as they say ‘yesterday’s show was…’ and add on the most gruesome thing they can think of.

‘…when I chopped all your balls off’

‘…when I set fire to the bus going to Forest Fringe’

‘…when I pulled all your fingernails off one by one and ate them’

When one is too tame they are made to sit down. There is the wonderful feeling in this show that there is so much more than just the text and what we see. You can feel the ideas and discussions bubbling beneath the surface.

  1. 887, Robert Lepage (International Festival) and
  2. The Encounter, Simon McBurney/Complicite (International Festival)

Before I go to these I don’t really have a clue who either of the men are. Turns out they’re pretty important.

Both shows are part of the International Festival and both have the ability to turn everything inside my brain to jelly. Seeing these two shows back to back is a bit like having dessert and then being given free ice cream with sprinkles. And a flake.

In 887 I was definitely inside Lepage’s memory palace and then outside it and then in his dad’s taxi. That definitely all happened. Just as I was definitely in the jungle seeing that monkey holding the camera and being whispered to telepathically by the tribesmen in The Encounter. I can see it all and feel it all just as well as I can smell the macaroni cheese from downstairs or feel the breeze on my foot as I’m still too tired to get out of bed and close the window. I went to the jungle, no doubt about it.

887 is as spectacular in set design as The Encounter is in sound. Together they are like a fuck you to anyone who thinks theatre is easy or dull, or that theatre technicians are not important. It felt like genuine magic when I closed my eyes and listened to hundreds of people in the jungle right in front of me, then opened them to see Simon McBurney standing alone on a littered grey stage.

1

We walked forever to a comedy that almost seemed further than Arthur’s seat. We walked in to stand at the back as all the seats were full. We snuck out of the fire escape after the first sketch consisted of the audience roaring with laughter at the suggestion of cheese induced flatulence. It seemed as though that was as risky as the night was going to get.

***

‘I can’t be rude about that play because it’s about rape.’

***

After a run of ‘meh’ plays that deflating feeling creeps back in. But then you go to see a play that reminds you that actually everyone is great and friendly and lonely and feels things too, so everything’s going to be okay in the end. Here are ten of those plays.

  • Blind Cinema (The Filmhouse)

The concept of Blind Cinema is that you go to the cinema, are blindfolded and have the movie audio-described to you by a child. Everyone comes out of the cinema having very different understandings of the story of the film. I had been told at one point there was a gorilla with red eyes, which another friend had been told was a girl (there was a discussion about whether our misunderstanding came through our lack of knowledge of the Scottish accent. If you try whispering ‘girl’ and ‘gorilla’ in a Scottish accent they do sound remarkably similar.) But it wasn’t about the story. I’m not entirely sure what it was about, but it was great.

The feeling was one of such intimacy with this child sat behind me and the stranger sharing the listening funnel. No one else would have been told exactly the same story, although we could hear sections of other whispers copied when our child was searching for the right words. The surrounding whisperings created a buzzing atmosphere and you could feel the excitement of the children and their rush to get through the words to the next description to keep up with the film. I don’t know if the film is an existing film already or of it has been made especially for this, but there’s a new one for each performance, I think, so it’s new for the children too. At first I thought it might be something famous like Pulp Fiction. Then I realised, what the hell was I thinking? Who in their right mind would get children to describe Pulp Fiction? Edinburgh has actually made me mad.

  • The Beanfield, Breach Theatre (theSpace on the Mile)

Breach Theatre’s on stage documentary is about their path to staging a re-enactment of the police attacks on visitors to Stone Henge at Summer Solstice in 1985. It’s interwoven with the cast reliving their experiences of going to Summer Solstice. What makes it different from everything I’ve ever seen is that they show the process behind the formation of the play, from writing letters to historical re-enactment societies to learning how to stage fight to being turned away from the field they wanted to film in and saying screw them, let’s do it anyway.

This company seems to have a genuine eagerness to discover. It’s infectious.

There is one moment I can’t get out of my head. One girl describes the sweaty, maddening, out of your head dancing while a boy dressed as a police officer mimes bludgeoning someone. To strobe lights and thumping music, this moment booms. Everything fades after the heady climax and leaves the sound of panting, of exhaustion, of horror at the realisation of violence committed. In the context of the Warwick Uni riots last year it is incredibly moving.

  • Manwatching (Summerhall Roundabout)

An anonymous woman writes about her sexual fantasties and for every performance a different male actor/comedian reads it, for the first time, to an audience. I wasn’t entirely impressed by the particular actor we had, but I liked the awkwardness that was inflicted upon him by the author’s deliberate absence. In the text she brings up the point that men have more command in their voices. If a man says something you’re more likely to believe them than if a woman was to say exactly the same thing. I think about this for the rest of the festival.

  • Brush (Assembly Roxy)

This is storytelling without words where Korean compny ‘Brush’ paint the set in front of you. It shows children the importance of physical creation in front of them rather than on a screen. The joy of the rustle of the paper or a light held to illuminate a window in a house. They interact with the paper as if it’s a living thing. The experience is enhanced if you have a very cute baby sitting next to you.

  • Swallow (Traverse Theatre)

This play has a joyous absurdity to it but is also incredibly dark. Three interwoven stories switch from monologues to dialogue as we are swept into their world of pain. Reality mixes with madness to create a Peter Pan-esque sense of wonder. In the moment that the feathers fell I felt like crying.

Also that swively light box is super cool.

  • The Solid Life of Sugar Water, Jack Thorne (Pleasance, Queen Dome)

This play doesn’t just acknowledge the awkwardness of sex, it shouts about it. It destroys Hollywood ideas of sex and uses such gross, squelchy language that everyone is squirming uncomfortably in their seats. It’s wonderful. As it’s by the company Graeae, it also embraces disability. She is deaf (‘I think he liked the deaf thing a bit too much’). He has an arm that ends at his elbow. We couldn’t care less. We are too busy being grossed out by their words. Jack Thorne beautifully interweaves descriptions of orgasm and stillbirth. I can still hear (spoiler alert) the sound of child’s laughter at the very end.

  • Pippin, Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society (C)

When Pippin says he wants to find something bigger and better and meaningful in his life, I understand him completely. I think Pippin struck a chord with me because I can see my brothers in him, particularly the oldest one who has been switching between jobs and internships in an attempt to find something that satisfies, challenges and enchants him. Pippin makes you question what you actually want and how to know if it’s the right thing.

(Also my friend directed it so I was very proud of him).

  • Butt Kapinski (Liquid Room Annexe)

Deyanna Fleysher ushers us in and shifts our seats as far apart as possible so we are not protected by the closeness of our friends. Annoying Americans who don’t quite get the sense of humour nearly ruin the show but she holds it together and takes control of the narrative.

This play, relying so heavily on audience participation, dances along the fine line of ease and discomfort. Fleysher, dressed as detective Butt Kapinski, makes a film noir with us as the characters, the blood and the sound effects. It is at first ridiculous but has darker undertones. Everyone laughs when the men in the audience are cast as prostitutes and have to give lap dances, while all the women are paying customers and have to sit and wank off, but the feeling of discomfort rises swiftly. This play questions gender stereotypes and expectations but is presented in a way that could easily just be taken as idiotic fun.

At the end she strips out of her Butt Kapinski outfit and puts herself in the role of a damsel in distress. Her saviour, a member of the audience now dressed as Butt Kapinksi, stands with her in the sound effect of rain. They stand huddled in the lamplight. She says something about him saving her, kisses him on the cheek and smiles up at him. He hesitates then kisses her on the lips. I don’t know if it was because he felt it was required of his character, or because he felt he was allowed to, or just because he wanted to.

How much is improvisation and acting up when you’re picked on, and how much is taking advantage?

  • Roaring Accordion (Sweet Grassmarket)

A wonderfully mental show where he gives us whisky and teaches us that we should get a standing ovation even if we go wrong because it’s important to know that people still love you when you fail.

  • Traces (Assembly Hall)

This circus act shows us just how incredible humans are. How are so many of us wasting our bodies?

4

As I’m on the train back to London I make a list of all the shows I’ve seen. I am disappointed by how little nudity I’ve seen onstage this year. My trip to Edinburgh last year began with Stripped Down’s Productions’ The Curing Room, but this year almost everyone has kept their clothes on.

Then I start counting. I realise that out of the approximately 217 actors (excluding Blind Cinema because I didn’t see them for very long) I reckon onstage, 8 of them were non-white (6 Asian, 1 mixed race, 1 black). (*I will do more exact count of this, but this is very close to being right*)

So I put my headphones in and try to ignore it.

Then I realise that ignoring it isn’t going to change anything. So I decide I’m going to make a change in what I see. But I’m seeing a wide range of things in Edinburgh and it all seems to be the same people doing it. If I can’t find see diversity in the biggest cultural festival in the world, there isn’t much hope for when I go back to my very un-diverse University city of Bristol. Edinburgh should be the most inclusive place in the world. It doesn’t reject anything. There was literally someone walking round the city with a bush on their head. How is that commonplace but non-white skin seems a rarity?

Only two of the actors I saw were disabled, and all but one of the one-person shows I saw were men (and I didn’t particularly like the one-woman one).

I’m going to actively try and see a more diverse range of people onstage because what an unfair world it would be if the only people on stage were white men with all their arms and legs. Edinburgh has such a rich diversity of themes but diversity as a theme doesn’t get enough coverage.

***

My brief time in Edinburgh has taught me a lot. I’ve realised I need to make a conscious effort to alter what I see to see more BAME- inclusive theatre. It has taught me that obsession is a great thing, that finishing projects matters and that persistence is key. So I am going to go home. I am going to finish Infinite Jest, I am going to run a half marathon, I am going to learn how to do a handstand and I am going to read and see and make more stories. And I am going to properly learn about the Labour leadership to the point where I can have a conversation about it and genuinely understand what I’m saying. So thanks Edinburgh.

***

The children sit behind us in the cinema and hand us the blindfolds. My boy beams proudly, looking so smart in his pristine school uniform and tie that is nearly as big as he is. Just before I put it on, my friend leans over to me and whispers, ‘I’m so glad you do theatre’.

Me too.

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