Wednesday, September 24, 2008

24th September 2008

Mark Fisher made a thoughtful comment on yesterday's post; he also started a blog thread in the Guardian not so long ago about the effect theatre has on the real world, in connection with the effect the success of the play "Deep Cut" had on that scandal of the deaths of young recruits at the army barracks.

"All My Sons" is a beautiful and moving play,but I wonder if at times like these we really 'need' it. What we need, I guess, is a shared and effective sense of collective morality. An understanding that human welfare is more important than short term profit.

And maybe great art helps bring that about...? I feel a bit sceptical though, I must admit, after seeing the vile behaviour of classical music lovers barracking protesters at the Jerusalem Quartet concert. They were furious at the thought that their "civilised pleasures" were being disturbed by the intrusion of middle eastern politics. And they behaved in an utterly uncivilised way as a result.

More effective than art, I suspect, might be the direct action of a forum of grieving relatives in Israel and Palestine. These are people whose family members have been killed in the conflict. Parents of the dead of both sides are meeting each other to find ways of doing what they can through non-violent action to bring the conflict to an end.

But then i found out about what they are doing, and so was given a grain of hope in that despairing situation, through a very beautiful film called "Encounter Point" I saw this Monday at the Filmhouse.

And I still obstinately think that theatre does have power in the world, and we who create it do have a moral responsability for what we create. And that it is at best deeply irresponsible, and probably also immoral, to be content to spread despair at this time. Which is why i yelled abuse at the director/creator of "I went to the house but did not enter" at this year's Edinburgh Festival.

Though quite what effect it had on him to have a middle aged trans woman suddenly erupt from the stalls and call him "full of shit" is hard to tell.

And I worry hugely about the effect my plays have on the people performing them as well as on the people watching them...

I suppose, too, that one reason i feel proud of (as well as inyensely anxious about) "Every One" is because it breaks a taboo - the taboo against thinking about death - and that it's necessary to do so. A feeling that contemplating death is necessary for enjoying life...

But maybe when we try to think about how plays or artworks might have directly changed the world we're asking the wrong question. It's a kind of category mistake. Because they affect the inner world. And perhaps sometimes, cumulatively, that affects the outer world also.

And in the end it all gets created not for any particular reason. But simply because it has to be.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

23rd September

There are thirteen thousand babies in hospital in China who are ill because they have been given tainted baby milk. Another forty thousand have had to be treated.

These figures are probably an under-estimate. Authorities in the know kept silent about the scandal for at least a month: they did not want details leaking out during the Olympics.

It has happened because of a fairly sophisticated scam. Milk processing firms have been adding a chemical called melamine to the milk. This has the effect of making the milk appear to have more protein than it actually has. So it's possible for substandard milk, or milk that has been watered down, to pass quality control tests.

This, clearly, increases the producers' profiy margins.

But it also severely damages the kidneys of the babies who drink it.

Whoever did this obviously had a sophisticated knowledge of food science.

But what they lacked was any moral sense.

In that way, the scandal mirrors so many other scientific dilemmas world wide.

But what I have difficulty imagining is the mentality of the people who adulterated the milk for their own gain. Did they know how damaging it would be for the babies?

Did they try to find out?

How could they do this?

And, perhaps most importantly: what kind of society is it that produces people who are prepared to act with such callous disregard for human life?

I thought I was used to such things, but this profoundly disturbs me.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Sunday, 21 September 2008

At last I finished the play today.

The last time I wrote a play so entirely on instinct it was Losing Venice. In those days, instinct was all I had. I didn’t know any other way to write a play.

So I wrote it all down quite innocently and unquestioningly.

These days, I know worse. Or perhaps better. Better in the sense that I have all kinds of technical understanding of what makes scenes work, and how they fit together to make a whole play work.

Worse in the sense that this continually got in my way. Because I kept trying to censor this play, Every One, so that it would be more like plays that I knew would work.

But it simply kept insisting on taking its own path. On taking the form it had to take.

And in the end I simply had to learn to stop worrying about whether it would work or not. And accept that it had to take the form it took, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Something easier to say than do.

And now its over I just feel an immense sense of joy and relief.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

Saturday, 20 September 2008

I remember how, years ago, when I was writing theatre reviews, I would be so utterly passionate about the shows I saw. And then utterly fearless about putting my response into words: whether positive or damning.

Generally it was the negative reviews I would receive praise for.

I would always receive this praise rather guiltily.

And now, some 25 or so years later, I feel even more guilty still on the (mercifully rare) occasions someone comes up to me and says: “You reviewed a show I did once...”
Almost always they remember because I said something hurtful or unpleasant about their work. All those years ago.

And we never forget.

I simply can’t bear to be negative this way any more. Perhaps it’s guilt. But I’ve been incapable of writing this diary for the last week precisely because I saw a production I thought was terrible in just about every respect.

I haven’t wanted to say so; and I haven’t wanted to pass it over in silence.

There were actors suffering in it I value highly; and they did what they could in an utterly unsupported and undermined way.

And I wanted to say to the theatres involved: if this is really the best you can do, you should shut up shop and give yourselves the space and time to reflect on what it is you really should be doing.

Of course this is the question I am continually asking myself: what should I be doing? How can I best respond to what is happening?

And I am struggling to answer these questions in the script I am working on. With what feels like a conspicuous lack of success.

And the experience of seeing that production has left me feeling completely unsupported. Filled with a sense of discouragement and dismay.

But that’s not just about the theatre.

The headlines the last week have been dominated by the unfolding of a gargantuan financial crisis that has exposed the utter weakness of the current financial structures and left governments flailing about, helpless.

The US government has nationalised mortgage lending – implicitly recognising what it cannot say openly. That the Market is not fit to be trusted with the basic processes that shape people’s lives.

Its latest response is to pay back the bad housing debts that began the process. Effectively, telling financial institutions that they can escape the consequences of their own greed and folly.

Not unnaturally, said financial institutions are delighted by this.

But no-one, I suspect, is really reassured.

There is a sense that governments, like that one poor suffering theatre, are responding to a new situation in an old and inappropriate way.

And that is just so much more dangerous.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

11 September 2008

Last night I couldn’t sleep. There seemed to be enormous tension in the air, somehow, and I couldn’t relax or settle. My body ached. I could not get comfortable. I found myself feeling furious with the situation in America. The news was bad from the elections. I felt such fury at that country's capacity for self deception. At their arrogance in trying to export a 'democracy' that is so terribly, tragically flawed. And I could not get my mind to focus on the idea of sleep.

Round about 3am I ran a bath. Slept in the bath, of course, and that somehow enabled me to let go and sleep afterwards in bed.

But after I’d woken about 8 work seemed impossible today. As a delaying tactic I started to tidy my wardrobe. Horrified at what I found: an unhappy person buying too many clothes in an attempt to ward off a deep unhappiness.

But oddly enough, in spite of that, I did work. Out in the garden, revising the first act.
And felt immensely proud of it. Felt a basic confidence: yes, this will work.

And then prepared the first trans creativity class. Which, as it turned out, was such a delight. I often do an exercise where we tell each other stories of our lives. We split into pairs: one talks, the other listen. Then we swap over. The person who listens then undertakes to tell their partner’s story to the group, in the first person, as if it was their own, and being aware that this is a story of heroism.

Which, in fact, it invariably is.

I was struck all over again tonight by the astonishing richness of our stories. And to hear my own retold was a profoundly moving experience.

I walked down the road: and think of tomorrow’s work with real pleasure.
As opposed to the usual: dread.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

10 September 2008

There’s a very nasty TV commercial doing the rounds just now. It’s little story begins with a husband saying goodbye to his wife as she leaves the house. As soon as she’s gone, he rushes to her bedroom and starts trying on a succession of absurd and ill-fitting outfits, before fixing on one that makes him look utterly ridiculous. Then he puts on make-up very badly, squeezes his feet into stilettos, and goes downstairs to the computer.

Why, I can’t remember. It may have something to do with on-line bingo.

What struck home to me was this sense of being a ridiculous being. An out of place being. Someone without dignity or worth.

It’s very profound in me, this sense, and often leads to absurd errors in judgement. A really shocking incapacity to look after myself or my interests properly.

This all gets tied up with my identity as a writer. I think it was four or five years ago, at a conference, that I first introduced myself as a “transgendered playwright”. I felt proud and defiant to do so.

What I was doing then was making explicit something that had always been implicitly true. And it has to do with the special quality of my voice as a writer.

Also to do with how prolific my writing is: because I have been trying, through writing, to gain a sense of the self-worth that has eluded me in living.

And I think now it also has to do with my difficulties with this play. My voice, here, feels so isolated and alone.

But I finished one of the two poems. The other I sketched and abandoned. I had the feeling no-one will like it.

Which is why, I think, I now need to finish it.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008

9th September 2008

I was walking to the bus stop this morning to meet my mother-in-law when I suddenly remembered the first time I felt this dread: when I was starting out as a writer, and frightened and appalled at the kind of writer I wanted to be. Its as if this current project has taken me right back to the beginning again, to a place where I have to relearn everything...To be sure I need to confront my feelings of loss and my fear of death...

I had agreed to take her to an eye appointment in the hospital She suffers from diabetes, and they wanted to check her sight. They were intending to put eye drops in her eyes to dilate the pupils, she had been warned it might make her vision fuzzy, and this had made her anxious.

As it turned out the eye drops caused her few if any problems at all. Her difficulty was in finding the eye pavilion, which she’d never been to before, and then finding her way to her appointment once inside it. I was happy to help with that; she is beginning, now, to find new information quite hard to process and it often leaves her afraid and bewildered.

I’d happened to glance at some poems I’d agreed to translate for a friend; and I could work on these in my head while we were waiting. And this familiar task saved me from my bewilderment.

Which returned when I finally got home about lunchtime. I kept putting off work. And when I did, I got nowhere.
I typed up the translations to reassure myself I had not altogether lost my feel for words; and when I still got nowhere I went back to the poems I am writing for the “Hidden City”.

Like the play, they seemed empty, embarrassing, absurd.

I sat at my mum’s desk and thought: this is the end. I simply can’t write any more. That’s what it felt like, not as melodramatic as it sounds, just a quiet certainty.

And this is death.
This is what it feels like: this grey blankness.
I said: it has to come some day.
And I began to cook supper. And eat, in a mechanical kind of way, a supper that really was not good at all.
And then change, and put on my make-up ready for the dance class.
It all felt a bit like a wake: and afterwards I felt so tired.

I was ten minutes into the class when I realised I’d put my dress on inside out.
On the way to the loo to change it, I suddenly realised what I needed to do: to the play, and to the poem, to make them work again.

And I don’t think I will forget.
But that’s how it is, constantly: insight squeezing out through a tiny side door when my conscious mind has stopped looking.


Monday, September 08, 2008

8 September 2008

Impossible, appalling morning.

I could not even bear to glance at the work I did the night before. I could not begin.

Utter despair.

Verdi’s Requiem on the radio in the afternoon. I was terrified at first. The Dies Irae frightened me in a way it never has before. And then enraged me: I felt utterly furious at the church for manipulating the very human fear of death for their own ends. To maintain and extend their power over their congregations.

And then the soprano began singing Dona eis requiem and I started to cry like a child. It was so much what I wanted for Susie. Peace, and eternal light.

I still couldn’t get started. I kept forgetting to bring up the notebook I’d jotted down some new dialogue in. And then I was afraid to go and get it. And then I went down, and picked up a pen in an absent minded kind of way and before I’d had time to think about I was sketching a new scene.

And then on the way down to the yoga class I found myself writing down more of it.

And in the yoga class I understood that what I was trying to do was write a scene between a woman and death. After her death.

And the sheer madness of it made me feel better about finding it so difficult. For how can you possibly imagine such a thing? And who would be daft enough to try?

Me, obviously.

The yoga was beautiful. The more I explore my body, the more I understand how terribly it was damaged in those appalling months of Susie’s illness and death. And then afterwards as I slid into illness. And then waited for surgery. And the surgery itself. And being poisoned afterwards...

The teacher has the most beautiful touch: warm and present. We did postures like the Cat and the Bridge, which I thought I knew, but which she presented in an utterly new way. And other I did not. And learnt so much.

So the day redeemed itself: and there’s a weird excitement in feeling I have no idea what tomorrow will bring.


Sunday, September 07, 2008

7th September 2008

A dark, grey, cold day. No light in the sky. The prospect of winter feels unbearable.

Deep back ache keeps me at home. Down at the base of the spine: it’s the kind that usually tells you you’ve taken on too much, you need to slow down.

And it’s true: I’m trying to finish EVERYONE, but I’m also thinking about JESUS, QUEEN OF HEAVEN, and LEAVE TO REMAIN and the two poems I’m writing for the HIDDEN CITIES project.

But there’s something else, I can’t help thinking. Perhaps it was easier before to put up with the state theatre is in here; my self esteem was low, I didn’t really believe I deserved the best.

But now, as I struggle to finish this play, it’s as if I can’t bear to think of it going the way of all the others: opening when still under rehearsed, playing for its three weeks and then disappearing.

Because I am so dependent on the context in which I work, I feel a kind of angry despair at the thought that because theatre here and now is so woefully falling short of its potential as an art form I will never be able to reach my full potential as an artist.

They’re performing Messaien’s gigantic opera, St. Francois d’Assise, at the Proms tonight. It’s never had a full production here, of course; but Pierre Audi has just produced it in Amsterdam. Pierre Audi who I briefly encountered in 1986, when I think he was still running the Almeida. Which was when Losing Venice was performed there. He now runs a huge opera house which has the facilities to stage this vast opera: his career has moved on. Mine, I suspect, has stood still.

I think of Faust and realise to an extent I am being unjust to myself; but I read JESUS out loud this afternoon and I am horrified to think the only way I can realise my artistic desires is to operate on the tiniest scale imaginable.

And there’s Messaien with his cast of 240 musicians. Having access to them – properly subsidised, superbly trained - extended his range as an artist in way that to me is completely closed.

I don’t know what to do; beyond thinking of him in his prison camp. With four weirdly assorted musicians and a piano with missing notes. (Which is an extreme version of the artistic space I feel stuck in). He still produced amazing music. I must keep on keeping on trying to do the same.

I still feel I am reaching the end of this particular line.


Thursday, September 04, 2008

4 September 2008

They’ve just played Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time” over the radio, broadcast from the Proms.

Such a joy to hear that again: in all its bleakness, its wrath, its tenderness. Its transcendence.

Listening to it, I remembered my second professional play, Ending Time, which Radio broadcast in 1984.

I was so proud of it. So full of hope.

I wanted each of its scenes to reflect each of the music’s eight movements. And there were three stories: a Radio 3 announcer trying to figure out what on earth he was going to say about it, a musician who played in the quartet, listening to the recording on his car radio. He was travelling around with his partner, and they were trying to decide whether or not to have a child. And a tramp they picked up on the road, St John of Patmos, who had the vividest memory of the Angel coming to see him to give him the Revelation that became the last book of the bible.

And it ended in ecstasy. A vision of heaven granted St. John. In the public loo at Kinross motorway service station.

It’s disappeared since, as radio plays do. But how good to be reminded of it.

I think I wanted to try to express something about the different dimensions of time: how on our dimension it seems to move forward in a linear fashion, but in another dimension it is eternity and maybe stands still.

I’d seen it in an amazing picture by El Greco in Toledo, The Burial of Count Orgaz, and the idea kind of obsessed me. There must be a truth in it, because here I am, quite late at night, alone, this Thursday; and I’m also with Susie in the cottage in Roslin listening to it go out over the radio.

And I’m with Basil Farncombe in his study in Malvern, and he’s teaching me to meditate; and I’m reading out the ‘Four Quartets” to Susie in the hospice.

And there’s bread rising in the kitchen. On an impulse, I started to knead it in the first few movements. A promise of good things to come.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

2 September 2008
People say that modern music cannot find an audience. They say the same about theatre.

But I write this listening to ecstatic applause from a full house at the Albert Hall, where they’ve been performing Messaien’s Turangalila Symphony.

Messaien’s music isn’t especially easy; it’s full of discords; it structures itself in an alien and unfamiliar way. It’s not very good at melody. You could hardly sing along to it.

Yet people seem to love his music. I felt that in the Festival, at his Eclairs sur l’au-dela.

I think its because he writes from a place of meaning. Where life makes sense. And he writes from a sense of love and joy. Joy at the amazing richness of creation.

All of which is what I am trying to do.

Thinking of A Child of Our Time. Again, where Tippett was trying to make sense of catastrophic suffering.

All that is so important. That and recognising the possibility of change.

In this festival, I’ve kept seeing it in myself. At the Messaien concert, for instance, I noticed how much I’d changed.

Before, when I was trying to live as ‘John’, I used to so enjoy a concert or a performance in solitude. When I saw these things at school, I totally valued them partly because they were somewhere I could be absolutely alone. I was desperate for that: so I could escape the utterly oppressive collectiveness that surrounded me. And was trying to destroy me.

And I was incredibly aware of the difference of being with the music or the performance and talking about it. I felt very passionately that talking about what I’d felt spoilt it somehow and I was obsessive in my determination to avoid talking to anyone afterwards.

But now I seem to seek out company. In skirt or dress, I actively seek out exchanges and contacts with ushers, programme sellers and fellow members of the audience in ways that utterly amaze me. All these contacts with people than in the past were so painful in my shyness and that I used to try to avoid are now a new source of pleasure.

I was in Prince’s St. gardens on Sunday watching the fireworks with a dear friend with whom I could converse with every degree of pleasure.

And for the first time in five years I have enjoyed the Festival without some hideous calamity having just occurred or hanging over my head.

So yes: as the fireworks played their amazing inventive and beautiful patterns in the sky: yes. Time to celebrate.

But now: it’s back to work.


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