Dys

sydword.jpgTo the rear of the Don Pasquale restaurant in Market Square, Cambridge is the unisex toilet. Seated there momentarily whilst en route to a meeting with a group of City Walking Tour Guides whom I am about brief on the favourite locations of Pink Floyd founding genius and recently deceased psychedelic rock legend Syd Barrett, with whom I grew up in my midteens and in whose memory the city is organising The City Wakes celebration (also here) my attention is drawn to a chrome steel sanitary disposal unit beside my right knee. There, embossed on the lid of the device, as clear as day, is the word ‘Syd’.
phsword.jpgImpressed, rising, I turn and study the emblem. Now that I have turned, the emblem is, effectively, upside down. I can make out, as clear as day, the initials ‘phs’. The unit is not called Syd – it is manufactured by phs!
Fortunately I have my camera with me.
I am forcibly reminded of Syd’s song ‘Chapter 24’, from the the first Floyd album ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, in which the composer quotes directly from what was then the most popular version of the ‘I Ching’, the ancient Chinese oracle, translated by Richard Wilhelm, rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, with foreword by Carl Jung:
A movement is accomplished in six stages
And the seventh brings return.
The seven is the number of the young light
It forms when darkness is increased by one.
Change returns success
Going and coming without error.
Action brings good fortune.
Sunset.
The oracular power of the I Ching is held to derive from its capacity to find meaning in, as Jung put it, “temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events”. (Three coins are tossed six times and, depending on how the coins fall (2 Heads + 1 Tail; 2 Tails + 1 Head; 3 Heads; 3 Tails), a diagram may be constructed which directs the user to a specific chapter of the oracle i.e. the book. The user, before tossing the coins, may ask a question or simply seek a reading of their present situation. In Confucius’ time, yarrow stalks were used instead of coins. The act of throwing the coins creates a connection, according to the principles of synchronicity, between the user and the instructive wisdom of the oracle.)
Strength Weekly would like to make it clear that it has no commercial relationship of any sort with either phs Washrooms, the Don Pasquale restaurant or Arkana Publishing (a Penguin imprint), publishers of the ‘I Ching’. The Editor of Strength Weekly would further like to stress that, while he found the experience of coincidence pleasing, he did not impute to it an esoteric significance so much as confirmation of his notion that certain powerful minds have the ability to bend, if only for a moment, the fabric of reality in such a way that it takes up forms consonant with abiding thought patterns.

The Next Big Thing

The animation in Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’ is exceptional. The detail is more, rather than less, than the eye can absorb and the rendering of distressed, battered and grubby surfaces parallels the scuffed production design that distinguished the ‘Alien’ movies when they first came out. The film’s director, Andrew Stanton, has said “Life is nothing but imperfection and the computer likes perfection, so we spent probably 90% of our time putting in all of the imperfections, whether it’s in the design of something or just the unconscious stuff. How the camera lens works in [a real] housing is never perfect, and we tried to put those imperfections [into the virtual camera] so that everything looks like you’re in familiar [live-action] territory.”
snowhite.jpgDisney used to do detail, albeit not particularly grubbily. (He wasn’t averse to dust, though – see cottage-cleaning scenes in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) Dirt is probably okay if its removal can be ideologised.) By the ’50s shadow detail and foreground texturing was on the wane – ‘Cinderella’ (1950) is going the way of the greetings card and bland, athleticised Aryanisation is taking over the depiction of faces and bodies. After a partial return to form with ‘Peter Pan’ (1953), it was downhill to ‘Lady and the Tramp’ (1955) and subsequent decades of giftwrap art.
In 1991 Disney did a three picture deal with Pixar, the first fruit of which was the three-dimensionalised and instantly successful ‘Toy Story’ (1995). Although the business relationships between the companies have changed over the years (a good outline of that here) Pixar’s CGI has returned Disney to its role as administrator of the portal to the corporate virtual.
It seems extraordinary, in retrospect, that Disney missed the boat back in the ’50s. While virtual reality technologies were not even a twinkle in Ivan Sutherland‘s eye at this time, the projects of engulfment and immersion of the clientele by means of screen-based enchantment were not exactly a footnote on Walt’s agenda. It must have been abundantly clear that deeper immersion was the ticket to ride but what we got was depth collapse.
The prospect of exerting social control by dissemination of the imagery of bodies defined by competitive sports seems to have been more attractive to the corporation. The equation, within the cartoon product, of the fairytale prince with the high school footballer and the princess with the tireless laundress of his nobly soiled garments produced not only a generic facial rendition but set standards for reduced affect in acting that are still being honed today. American Stranger, in his post ‘Rational Actors’, fingers George Lucas’ ‘The Phantom Menace’ as a prime example of the new botox-face-and-monotone-delivery school of synthespianism and contends that it can be seen in more and more movies. He observes that it’s not the actors themselves who are responsible for this absenteeism:
‘I challenge anyone to hold its performances up to those of the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight, and, excluding Heath Ledger for the moment, say what the difference is. There’s the same vacuity, the same open invitation to allegory. One has to assume they’re told to act this way, since both films are full of actors with proven talent. All that’s purchased are their names and faces (I wonder if that’s in the contract). They inhabit their parts with all the smoothness of an automaton, a styleless mode of performance apparently designed for easy exchange with animated versions, comic book images, videogame avatars, concepts.’
Pixar itself has no truck with this kind of eviscerated acting in its use of character voicing, and many animations, particularly short kids’ cartoons, tend to the hypermanic in the vocal department. If, however, one posits post-Golden Age Disney animations as a precursor to the current out to lunch acting style identified by American Stranger, then one can go on to observe that the vocalising in these films has, obviously, arisen as a response to a graphic genericising of the male and female figures that populate the work. Current zombie acting may mark a return from the manic avidities fuelled by headlong consumption (as seen, for example, in foam-flecked Jack Nicholson acting styles) to a need for a style that is not, say, coolly and cruelly connoisseurial in the James Bond manner but more suited to withstanding an overwhelming battering. If acting styles are taken as a form of recommendation, what are the extreme circumstances on the horizon that might be most effectively countered with stupor and dissociation?

In a Book

The Live Art Almanac is a collection of responses to some questions sent out by the editors a few months ago:
What articles have you read, what emails did you receive or forward to a friend, what blogs have you visited, what texts crossed your path? Did they engage you, amuse you, or make you rethink Live Art? If it caught your eye and had something interesting to say then we want to know about it.
There’s a piece from Strength Weekly in it, called ‘Why Do Men Walk Funny?’ Also writing from Tim Atack, Madeleine Bunting, Barbara Campbell, Simon Casson, Brian Catling, Rachel Lois Clapham, Helen Cole, Stephen Duncombe, Tim Etchells, Ed Casear, Lyn Gardner, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Daniel Gosling, Leslie Hill, John Jordan, Nick Kimberley, Adam E Mendelsohn, Alex Needham, Sally O’Reilly, Mary Paterson, Will Pollard, Chris Riding, Nick Ridout, Ian Saville, Theron Schmidt, Rebecca Schneider, Rajni Shah, Kate Tyndall, Mark Wilshire and John Wyver.
It can be purchased from Unbound.

The City Wakes

is the title of a Cambridge-based festival celebrating, from October 22nd to November 1st, the pre-London years of Syd Barrett, one of the founder members of Pink Floyd. Syd died in 2006 after many years of reclusiveness that followed his withdrawal from the band as a result of a slow but irreversible breakdown that was probably precipitated by an excess of LSD.
I grew up in Cambridge with Syd from about the age of 14 and went on to share flats with him in London in the Swinging and Delirious ’60s. A number of his friends, including myself, will contribute to the city-wide programme of tributes, exhibitions and events in his home town. I’m doing something I’ve always wanted to do in a parallel universe, namely conduct guided tours of something. In this case and universe I shall be guiding enthusiasts around ‘Syd’s Cambridge’ – an excellent opportunity to revisit the Hallowed Hippy Havens that mapped out the angel-headed youth that many of us were sure we were navigating. I’m doing a talk at Borders and also presenting an Especial Cooch. The latter is an extension of what has rather rapidly become a London must-have occasion: David Gale’s Peachy Coochy Nites, details of which can be found here not to mention here. The especiality is outlined here.

syd.jpgIf I were pressed to make one useful comment about Syd it would be that before the surly craziness came he was a delightful, delighted, sunny, beautiful and amusing man. This photo from The City Wakes site finds him in typical shape at the age of 19.

Natty Dread

Market day in Dreadlock City. Down from the hills and out of the tipis they are coming in twos and threes. The ones who have come far have backpacks. Some have guitars. A tiny lady in her sixties in a black dress, upper arms tattooed, gold pierces, bare foot, leads a little black dog. A big red-haired guy in a long kilt and heavy boots strides across the bridge. I’m parking the Berlingo. Earlier on I had seen, from the car, a group of five in baggy Indian pants, wrapped around with yellow cloth, some with mohicans, some shaven heads, others with long black locks or skanky dreads. matthew.jpgNow the group is over the bridge and moving past the gas station. The local people stare, not over-critically – they’re used to it. One man is really striking – he has a thin, dark brown cotton blanket over his head and shoulders and strongly resembles Jesus Christ as played by the Spanish student Enrique Irazoqui in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s remarkable 1964 B&W bibler ‘The Gospel According to St Matthew’.
Pasolini, a Marxist atheist, dressed the characters in his period movies in costumes that combined elements of the street with the wardrobes deployed by 15th century painters such as Piero della Francesca. In the case of Irazoqui he had cast a haunted, pale youth who glowed with pained earnestness and dressed him so that he seemed interchangeable with the beat kids and travellers who were beginning to thumb their way around Europe at that time.
It’s doubtful whether Pasolini’s politics would have led him to endorse the apolitics of the wandering youth, but their evident disaffection might have struck him as amenable to some sharpening and adjustment. His Christ is an enflamed revolutionary whose long speeches drawn directly from the Gospels and addressed straight to camera have such a mesmerising effect that even a fundamentalist atheist, such as Strength Weekly’s currently foreign correspondent, might be persuaded to reconsider whether it was entirely right not to have helped that old lady across the road.
christ.jpgIt is probable that Christ did not thumb rides, but he was not above borrowing other people’s transport on special occasions. On Palm Sunday, according to several of the Gospels, he got two of his disciples to take a colt or donkey from a nearby field in order that he could ride it into Jerusalem. Some years later, in 1957, thanks to Jack Kerouac, hitch-hiking was repurposed as spiritual practice. The causality is evident. I clearly remember, despite having been counselled never to ‘take a short ride’, my own ecstatic reaction to being deposited, in 1962, on the outskirts of the village of Melbourne, some seven miles out from my home town, after my very first attempt to hitch-hike to London. I had been blessed.
Kerouac admired his friend and travelling companion Neal Cassady, whom he considered to be a complete, radiant and thoroughly present being. The writer himself felt like a pale shadow of the permanently wired hipster yet was widely regarded as the very incarnation of the man liberated from context. Kerouac mentions the looks he got when he descended into towns wild-haired from the road. nealjack.jpgHe was entirely aware of his eccentricity and probably died as a result of resisting the notion , thrust on him by fans and critics alike, that, as a saint, he should be blissfully unaware of his own radiant awareness. By all accounts, he endured throughout his celebrity a nagging awareness of his limited awareness and an exaggerated sense of his unsuitedness for high spiritual office. He didn’t feel like the real thing.
In the olden days, of course, there were big people who were the real thing all day long and didn’t even know it! These were the people admired by lesser people who not only imitated their bigness but affected a lack of awareness that they – the imitators – were perceived as incandescent . They were not incandescent, of course, but they understood that the effect would be compromised by their appearing to know about it.
The original big (I refer to magnitude of being, not stature) people lived over a million years ago and were authentically themselves. Their radiance has been emulated everafter.
The ‘angel-headedness’ of the hipster was his (there were no girl hipsters) emblem of ignorance. He was oblivious. In extreme circumstances this had led to Dennis leaning on the live electric hob and not noticing until the elbow of his leather jacket had burned through. This would, generally, be unusual, for a degree of poise was required to maintain the balance between innocence and experience.
Setting aside the toothsome debate about Jesus’s own levels of self-consciousness (I think he knew he was weird, right?), I return to the Berlingo and its satisfying rear double doors that open to reveal chest-high shelving, so handy for stacking boogie boards. Walking away from the hired vehicle I look over my shoulder in response to a call behind me. The young man with the blanket on his head walks towards me, his hand extended, as if in greeting. armani.jpgHe is holding something that he wants me to have. On closer inspection I identify my Armani wraparound shades. (Well, it says Armani on them and at €5 a pop that guy on the stall obviously doesn’t know he’s sitting on a goldmine!) I must have dropped them as I fastened the car doors.
The young Jesus smiles amiably and I realise that he has no particular axe to grind about the crass stylishness of my fashion items. In Christ’s own day, I imagine, and this is just me imagining, they wore a piece of wood with slits in.
For a moment I rather liked the idea that this striking crusty loved me unconditionally and could, if he felt like it, produce any number of designer leisure accessories and pass them among the people that they need not squint as the rays fell upon them. Then I reverted morosely to the view that we are all copies now.

bucket.jpg
Strength Weekly goes to a hot place for a bit and leaves a site under reconstruction until September: the Essays, Journalism and Plays sections are, oddly, available via the ‘Archives’ column to your right. The archives for Jan, Feb, March 2007 will provide access to these crisp items. Plus, of course, you can use the lively ‘Categories’ column to call up eye-catching elements.
In a few days we will leave the hot place and go inland to somewhere we have not visited before. Images of this place are available and I have studied them. They depict a small town surrounded by mountains. Further detail is not available. This, then, is the ideal condition for hands-free visualisation wherein the traveller imagines where he will be staying based on the sum of his life experiences and brochures that he may have savoured.
It is fairly clear that the town has a street stretching away from me and rising slightly towards the horizon. There is a surprising number of cafes, many of which are staffed by young people in dreadlocks. At the far end of the street one can see purple cloths on which Tarot cards have been placed by oxblood-skinned New Age internationalists. I see one or two people that I last came across in Ibiza in 1963. The town is Swiss, however, and snow lies prettily on the roofs of the houses that face the camera.
I am enjoying myself in this place and will report back when it has been tested against the place to which we will drive shortly.
A further elaboration of the exercise involves the attempt to recall the details of the anticipated destination once it can no longer be anticipated, due to one’s arrival in its material equivalent.

Becoming Trinity

In the newspaper it says ‘Three charged with Kercher killing’. The headline refers, of course, to the three suspects whose odd accounts of their activities at the time of British student Meredith Kercher’s death will shortly be assessed by an Italian judge, who may require them to stand trial. For legal reasons, I expect, the ‘Three’ cannot be referred to as the ‘Kercher Three’ as such an explicit linking would be considered prejudicial to their case. Without this formulation, however, the headline is quite obscure, given that the case has been out of the papers for several months. One might ask, on reading it, “Three who?” Three people, probably. Just any old people? Ones that we haven’t yet heard of? Obviously not – the word ‘Kercher’ reminds us – those of us that remember the name – that the case was, before last Christmas, quite notorious.
The headline is unsatisfactory. It would have been better had it been composed thus: ‘”Three” charged with Kercher killing’. This would serve to suggest that the Three are not just any three but a special three. It could, however, create confusion, insofar as it might cast doubt on the exact numbers of suspects involved. As if a policeman had said “We think three were involved but it might have been four.” The policeman’s lack of certainty would then have been mocked by the use of the quotation marks. This possibility muddies the field.
celine.jpgThe point is, the Three have acquired distinctiveness, unlike the three that haven’t (the ones we haven’t heard about yet). This Three are on the point of acquiring an aura but they haven’t got it yet. If they are found guilty they will certainly get it. If acquitted they may also get it, but for a shorter time. The aura isn’t the one that saints have, wherein a dinner plate worn behind the head signifies estimable goodness. It’s ‘aura’ in a neutral sense – a specialness that, one imagines, might crackle or hum about them were we to meet them.
The headline itself hums, in another way. It is compellingly marked by the absence of any indicators of the specialness of its subjects. But it does have the word ‘killing’ in it, and this focuses the attention.bomb.jpg This attention is not repaid, it simple enables one to note that something is missing. It’s the aura that is missing, but that’s appropriate because the Three have yet to acquire the aura. So we are witnessing the period before something that may be about to take off takes off. The period is both empty and pregnant.
The headline is part of a mythopoeic process – it constitutes a stage in the making of myth. It doesn’t refer to the mythic qualities of the three accused, it presents a point on the path towards a canonisation that is possibly imminent.
You could say that any killing already follows mythic shapes, but this is contemporary mythmaking, the sort that gives rise to the auras of Sir Alan Sugar, Steven Hawking and Celine Dion. These specialnesses are confusable with charisma, though, and must therefore be regarded as aspects of mythmaking lite.
cern.jpgA few weeks ago in Geneva CERN announced the imminent switch-on of its latest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, which may lead to the confirmation of the existence of the Higgs Boson, the hypothetical particle that endows massless elementary particles with mass. The Kercher headline traces the path of the myth boson, one that circulates in the vicinity of certain categories of event – in this case a newspaper headline that lacks mass – and may combine with an event to give it a sheen that could become a glow that might become a radiance. This has little to do with the outcome of a court case, it’s a process looking for an object.

I Can Ape

Doesn’t time fly, readers? It seems only a year ago that I posted from the Orange Prize. That’s because it was a year ago. The introductory speeches were panicstrickenly gabbled, almost as if a broadcast media person had said to Kate Mosse “Just get through it, poppet. People know roughly what has to be said so just hurtle it. Nobody cares.” Rose Tremain got the big one so justice was done. Then back to the Taittinger. Expensive enough but starts to pall after glass five. The canapés at the do are stacked dinkily on plinths on curious little constructions comprising four clear plastic rectangles, the size of what we used to call ‘LP covers’, held apart by small inverted shot glasses placed at each corner. Yeah? The finger foods are placed on each level and you have to slip your hand between the levels to get one.
Well, I spotted a lone finger item on level three of a nearby stack and decided to get it. The item (something to do with salmon on a dot of toast) was placed to the far side of the level and, evidently, had proved too inaccessible to bother with.jenga.jpg Unabashed, I extended my arm towards the plastic tower. Within millimetres of sliding my hand in, palm downwards, I realised that the sleeve of my jacket would catch the LP cover and dislodge it, Jenga style. It became clear to me that I must turn my hand over and go in upside down, palm upwards. Any reader who has reached for a canapé in this way will know the problem. I extended my index and second fingers, in a V shape, and pushed them at the toast dot. Soon I had trapped it and could withdraw my hand. Around me beautiful women milled, probably talking of chapters and plots. As my hand broke free I realised that the canapé was the right way up but my hand wasn’t. How could I get it into my mouth without inverting it and thereby tipping the smoked morsel onto the Queen Elizabeth Hall carpetting? (My other hand was holding the Taittinger, obviously.) I decided to twist my wrist round towards my mouth rather than rotate it around its axis. This is an unusual movement, rarely called for in the average day. okapi.jpgThe canapé, however, was not held by the tips of my fingers but by their sides, down in the V, for safety. Imagine my surprise when, as the dot drew nearer to my outstretched mouth, I stuck my fingers up my nose. Well, I said to myself, at least the hand is stabilised thereby. I extended my tongue, as if an okapi, and tried to pull the dainty delicacy in. After a few moments of ungainly manoeuvring I had the bastard. Quite pleasant, if not as amusing to the mouth as the one with yellow paste and bits of grass sticking out.

Flightsome

bike2.jpgOn the other hand, walking back along the crowded Embankment from the Globe Theatre towards Waterloo, minded to check out the giant can art on the walls of the Tate Modern, we entered a sudden density of people, heard roars and screams and saw men flying though the air. The Nissan Qashqai Challenge is in full swing. Mountain bikers launch themselves from a tower down a steep ramp, clear an abyss, hit another down slope, zoom up a sandbank, take off, hurtle high to the next sandbank, clear the ground again and, in mid-air, either i. do 360s in the horizontal plane ii. do 360s in the vertical plane or iii. let go of the bike entirely apart from one hand on the handlebar then remount in order, just in time, to hit the steep slope that marks the terminus of the Challenge run. The fourth possibility involves crashing out and rolling about with one’s bike in the abyss.
Gripping stuff. Rather more so than the spectacle of neo-medievalists being sunny (see previous post). The celebration outside the Tate is concerned with contemporary issues of panic, abandonment, recklessness, the difficulty of feeling mortal, the allure of danger and its pal death. Young male athletes enact a popular concern with bodies that are light – they can fly; tough – they can smash cartoonly into walls and resurrect; disposable – death loses its sting as the wider world unravels.

Hooray

quotes in this post are taken from company websites

Feels like ages since I last dissed Shakespeare. As ardent readers of this journal may have noticed, I have no time for the fellow and consider him directly responsible for the complacently novelistic condition of much British mainstream theatre. (Yes, I know it doesn’t follow but it does when you hear my argument about it which I can’t be bothered to rehearse here because it’ll slow me up.) globe.jpgNevertheless, we took our girls to his theatre the other day, to see Footsbarn do ‘A Shakespeare Party’. It’s not uninteresting going into the Globe because you succumb to the feeling that ‘this is how it was’ quite readily and find yourself studying the joinery with an uncharacteristic intentness. I was also surprised to find myself wondering about Elizabethan Health & Safety sensibilities (fairly rudimentary) and the extent to which the architects of Globe II had to accommodate the current mildly hystericised concern about such matters. There is, I’m sure, an easily obtained illustrated booklet that would lay my curiosity to rest. Stout modern handrails are in evidence.
globeseats.jpgAnd it’s nice sitting up in the Upper Gallery, despite the price. Not only does the tiered globularity enable good views of the stage but you can study all the other tiers and the groundlings (a fiver) at your leisure. At first I rather sweetly thought that this emblematised some sort of olden days egalitarianism but then I corrected myself: wherever you sit (or stand) you can see who can afford what and assess precisely how much better or worse their view is than yours. You know where you are. In our seats, in fact, the view of the audience was excellent and that of the stage okay. I didn’t mind this.
Then the show started. But first some context (from The Guardian article by Lyn Gardner here): ‘It is a quarter of a century since Footsbarn was resident in the UK, but its name has passed into theatrical legend as a once-great British company that we somehow allowed to get away. Now based in a farmhouse in the Auvergne region of France, where its members dream of founding a theatre school, the company grew out of a meeting between student actors Oliver Foot and John Paul Cook at Goddard College in the US, a college with a strong tradition in radical theatre, at the end of the 1960s. Back in Foot’s native Cornwall in 1971, the pair set up Footsbarn (taking its name from the barn owned by Foot’s family, where the company initially lived and worked) and travelled around the south-west, setting up a tent on Cornish cliffs and Somerset village greens, and putting on theatre for local people.’
foots1.jpg‘The company’s aesthetic was make-and-do; a magpie approach using found materials and alighting on anything its members admired in the work of theatre-makers from Grotowski to Brook. Its pick-and-mix bag of styles appealed to new audiences. In the words of company member Paddy Hayter, who joined Footsbarn soon after it started and never left, bringing up his children on the road: “We share a performance with the audience, rather than perform it for them.” When (the Globe Theatre’s artistic director Dominic) Dromgoole caught a performance of Hamlet in Somerset in the late 1970s, the audience were so enjoying the grave-digger scene played by clowns that it went on for more than 20 minutes. Dromgoole remarked on this to a company member. “This is nothing,” he replied. “You should have been here last night. It lasted an hour, and the audience still didn’t want it to stop.”‘
There are a number of British alternative performance companies who have made their bases either in the countryside or small towns. Forkbeard Fantasy, for example, have been based in the depths of Devon since 1974 and appear entirely indifferent to urban allure. Welfare State International, founded in 1968, settled for much of their performing life in Cumbria, while I.O.U Theatre, which broke away from Welfare State in 1976, are based in Halifax in West Yorkshire.
lantern.jpgWith the exception of Forkbeard Fantasy, whose work has a fevered, zany quality that sets it apart from the others, the groups produce work that, in the words of John Fox and Sue Gill, founders of Welfare State, situates them in the ‘celebratory arts movement’. Fox and Gill devised ‘fire festivals, lantern parades, rites of passage, community carnivals and site-specific theatre’.
iou.jpgIn 2003, I.O.U, who often work with ‘giant mechanical props’, presented ‘Tattoo’ in which ‘A fuming army of petrol driven insects are in erratic pursuit of a monstrous mechanical egg factory. Venting gooey foam along the way, this towering structure ambles through the audience attempting to keep its precious crop from the clutches of the marauding swarm.’ The work of both groups is often spectacular in scale and in detail, features bizarre structures, grotesque costumes, masks and make-up and presents audiences with work that, at its best, is startling, intensely imagistic and, importantly, demonstrates that ‘celebration’ need not be civic or even especially wholesome.
The celebratory qualities of Footsbarn involve ‘transcending the barrier of language with its unique blend of visual theatre, music and magic.’ The company focuses on the work of Shakespeare and Moliere and has performed much of its work in its own circus big tops. ‘A Shakespeare Party’ features highlights from, among others, ‘Hamlet’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, strung together in a loose but festive manner. The festive manner consistently grates and exemplifies some of the fundamental flaws in what could be called the ‘sunny side’ of the celebratory arts movement.
It would be naive to assume that when playing happy characters on stage, actors themselves are happy. We are also familiar with the assumption that Cheerful Charlie Chuckles, the widely admired comic entertainer, is himself a fount of irrepressible joy around the house. We know, in fact, that Charlie is often a morose sot who comes to life on stage and does a good job. smiley.jpgThe problem with ‘sunny side celebration’, as profiled above, is that we are expected to believe that, unlike those who merely perform jollity, sunny side celebrants are actually jolly and, when they lay aside their ribbons, bladders, confetti and amusing bottoms at the end of a hard day’s capering, continue to celebrate, possibly in a slightly lower key, the very fact of being alive.
The idea that there is something to celebrate, above and beyond weddings, betrothals, comings of age etc holds, unlike the bladder, little water. I recall being told, almost on a daily basis, throughout the 60s, that there was a level of consciousness, within us all, akin to bliss. While I have no problem with the idea that we are all potential ecstatics – trainspotters, for example, have mastered the acquisition of this unnecessarily occulted condition – we should not confuse ecstasy with bliss. Ecstasy is a satisfying state based on the elimination of diverting stimuli by absorption into a single, fixating stimulus, as avid television watchers have discovered. Bliss seems to be, according to its fans, a state that is simply there, if only you could get to it. Whether it’s out there or in there is a matter of resistible debate.
So to get into bliss what you have to do is strip away all the layers of shit that prevent you getting into it. It’s not an unattractive idea. The trouble is it can’t be done. It’s possible that certain strong drugs or ritual privations might momentarily reveal glimpses of something very bright and extremely cheerful but this is a minority practice requiring a dedicated lifestyle. Most people seek out diversions that work okay for them. If it works it’s a psychological achievement, not a mythological transformation. It tends not to last, which is a bummer.
Sunny side celebrants are fundamentally irritating because their colourful jollifying suggests a permanently open line to that which is celebratable. When these people take off their wigs they’re still clowns! When they brush their teeth they’re celebrating the rhythms and sensuality of the operation! Even when they’re not happy they are happy!
The sunny siders move through the masses of the morose purporting to engage them in ways which will facilitate the casting-off of time-based sorrow. Gazing around the audience from my perch in the Upper Gallery of the Globe I thought I could see a simultaneous engagedness and quizzicality on many faces. A common expression involved a fixed smile that would indicate enjoyment were it more mobile and an anxious tension around the eyes suggesting the difficulty associated with the need to withstand the torrential effusiveness. I’m not suggesting that the audience members were uptight bastards incapable of having a good time, far from it. It’s just tricky, not to say burdensome, regressing yourself to the nursery level that might enable you to identify with the jollity.
When, after capering through the groundling audience playing olden days musical instruments, members of the cast present an enactment of the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ playlet from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, the Footsbarn aesthetic reaches its limits. The excerpt is presented as broad slapstick with yokel vocals and much clown-based bottomwork. At one point a bumpkin sticks a sword up another bumpkin’s arse, pulls it out then sniffs it disgustedly. I thought this wasn’t too bad – clowning, after all, derives great energy from re-presenting highlights from toilet training and, in the classic spilt paint/thrown water set-pieces of the family circus, ventilates the tensions implicit in the lifelong maintenance of a suite of highly trained sphincter muscles.
The problem is that if Elizabethan humour was relatively coarse and Footsbarn wish to make, so to speak, a stab at it, then they have to accommodate their audience’s disaffection with its lack of sophistication. Again, I’m not suggesting that sophisticates don’t laugh at toilet humour but that they like their toilet humour presented within a contemporary aesthetic rather than framed by the paradoxically wholesome didactic project of ‘taking a journey into Shakespeare’s world’. In brief: Shakespeare’s humour has been shit for a long time and nothing can be done about it. About the only recourse left to a director is to entrust the comedic episodes to exceptionally skilled comic actors who might compensate for the obsolete text and its mirthless situations by the application of inordinate amounts of energy. foots2.jpgThere are a number of very assured comic actors in the Footsbarn ensemble but the company is, nevertheless, caught between two stools (cheeky!): the tendency to modernise runs up against the fact that the ‘comic’ (and proto-celebratory) texts are intractable and insufferable while the heritage industry invitation to the ‘Late Medieval World’ theme park, if it features ‘authenticity’ achieved by the minimising of sophistication, risks alienating most adults and many children.
The jollity at the Globe was reminiscent of the mania of disc-jockeys. The late and lamented John Peel – himself an exemplar of non-sunny side genial moroseness – used to tell the tale of his employment, at the beginning of his career, by a Dallas radio station whose management requested that, while on air, he speak ‘with a laugh in his voice’. Peel’s anecdote, aired more than once on Radio 1, would culminate with a pleasing demonstration of this jollified vocalisation. His colleagues were largely not sensible of the possibility that Peel’s critique applied very much to themselves and their crazed cheeriness. Radio DJ celebratory speaking styles suggest nothing so much as panic and anxiety, given that it is not possible to locate the celebratable on a 24 hour basis.
Sunny siders, despite their justifiable antipathy to straight show business culture, are purveyors, ultimately, of depression. Celebratory art, when disconnected from august occasions, generates and – can one say this unglibly? – celebrates depression. Only the depressed would wish to display their mania vocationally. Their witnesses are drawn into unwilling reciprocation: the injunction to be up is a downer.