I have to admit, pregnancy has felt dull this time. I don’t care what anyone says, nine months is ages. And as my life is currently almost entirely made up of teaching and childcare, it turns out that once you take away the wine then I am always the responsible adult in the room, which is a pretty dreary position to be in.
Still, the last two weeks did bring a few cultural pleasures – Gruff still goes to nursery in the Easter holidays, so I found myself in the rare possession of a day off, and went to see Hilda af Klimt at the Serpentine. It was a gleaming day in Hyde Park, with shaggy grey herons and a woodpecker and the hellebores out and the scent of blossom, and the paintings – abstractions pre-dating Kandinsky which were neglected until recently – are spiritual and strange and almost tremble with pale spring light.
And then in the evening, I saw Anomalisa, written by Charlie Kaufman, who I think is a genius. I have a bit of an obsession with puppets at the moment, and it is in made in stop-motion animation, a form I have loved since I saw Jason and the Argonauts as a four-year-old. The high-concept is brilliant, and although it is very dark, it was also pure pleasure. I recommend Zadie Smith’s essay in the New York Review of Books, which has had me thinking about it all week.
This week I also made a trip to the theatre to see Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, which was a more mixed experience. In my early twenties when I was in the Royal Court’s young writer’s programme, Sarah Kane, who killed herself in 1999, was a huge influence. I read all her plays a hundred times and would have argued she was a genius too. I loved how theatrical they seemed – they weren’t just about three people arguing about an ‘issue’ in a white room. In Blasted a hotel in Leeds is suddenly blasted by a mortar bomb from a civil war far away; geographical space collapsing. In Phaedra’s Love Hippolytus’ genitals are thrown on a barbecue. Cleansed has stage directions like ‘a sunflower bursts through the floor’, or ‘the rats carry Carl’s feet away.’ And there was always the sense she really meant it – Kane wasn’t just gesturing towards good and evil, she believed in them. The sparse dialogue rattles along, sometimes funny, always raw and true: ‘I love you now. / I’m with you now. / I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you. / Now. / That’s it. /No More. / Don’t make me lie to you.’
I’ve never seen a Kane play staged before though. I’d always heard directors loved her, especially in Europe, because she forces them to push themselves and find solutions. But watching Katy Mitchell’s Cleansed I almost started to wonder if Kane’s plays are a series of traps set up for directors to fall into. Cleansed is really short, for example – only forty-something pages of dialogue, with the characters often speaking in 3 or 4 word sentences – and you could read it in under half an hour, but the pressures of commercial theatre clearly lure directors into stretching it out with profound silences rather than tearing through it. This production was 1 hour 45 minutes long.
Also, the stage directions, which read as a series of sudden, wild, horrible, beautiful images, all sort of piled up on an actual stage, until before you knew it you were looking at a woman dressed as her brother next to some sunflowers and burning books and an abacus and some umbrellas and a stretcher and a rat, and it looked a bit of a pretentious muddle. The torture, rape and incestuous fucking, which have a kind of dream-logic in the text, felt treated too literally too, but I wonder now how I expected it to work outside of my head? Maybe any stage rendering was going to seem too literal.
Anyway, people walked out etc, but it didn’t feel very shocking after the first twenty minutes, and more alarmingly, I didn’t believe in either evil or love as real forces on the stage – everything got a bit numb and even (with the music-choices) sub-Tarantino. (I’m a Tarantino fan, but would have said Kane’s vision is completely different). I’d recommend reading her, but wonder now if I’ll ever see a production as good as the one in my brain….
Back to poetry though – the next dates in my diary are readings. I’m very pleased to be on the bill at the Proletarian Poetry reading at the South Bank Centre this Wednesday, alongside Mona Arshi, Rishi Dastidar, Fran Lock, Richard Skinner and Laila Sumpton. And then on the 22nd I will be at the Tea House Theatre for the Poetry School’s Summer Term Launch, to hear Catherine Smith, R. A. Villanueva and some of wonderful New North Writing mentees I have been working with this year: David Borrott, James Giddings, Jasmine Simms, Kathleen Bainbridge Moran and Tom Cleary. Hope to see some of you there before – gulp – May arrives, and all cultural pleasures that can’t be enjoyed on an Ipad whilst breastfeeding become difficult…