Posted: October 17, 2012 Filed under: theatre
In his book Chavs, Owen Jones gathers statistics and stories to show the systematic ‘demonization of the working class’ over wthe last forty years. Rigorous, clear, impacting and long overdue, it is also often dry, repetitive and somewhat polemical – something that, happily, the six playwrights’ responses, presented here by Lyric Lounge and Waifs + Strays, are not.
The most accomplished piece of the evening is Up the Royal Borough, where a working class girl from Leyton takes a trip to Chelsea to be interviewed for a job by a conservative MP. Written by Sarah Solemani- writer for the New Statesman and star of BBC3 sitcom Him and Her - the dialogue is clever, convincing and very funny as we see the kind of ‘common sense’ discrimination that we all know happens behind the scenes being forced to awkwardly unpick itself. Director Max Key draws wonderful performances from the remarkable Joana Nastari and hilarious Lucy Briers; both women remain full of contradictions and irreducible to political ideologies, allowing the script to fizz with believable surprises.
Schnapps is set in a supermarket manager’s office where stock room assistant, Michelle, is receiving a ‘disciplinary with written warning’ for ‘allegedly’ stealing a damaged bottle of Archers. Barney Norris’ direction lets the humour feel easy and writer Jake Bruger gets the details of the routine humiliation and rigid hierarchy that surround a minimum wage job spot on. This is assured, engaged writing and as the coiled implications in the offhand final line – the manager casually offers the bottle that has resulted in Michelle’s near dismissal to the assistant manager – are allowed to resonate, the fiction of Britain as a meritocratic society is sharply laughed off stage. A longer and more developed version of this would be very exciting to see.
What these two pieces do so well is show us our social landscape almost by accident. There is no ‘message’ as such, just a careful set up that is allowed to play out; in giving details their true weight, the ordinary contradictions we live every day can are re-investigated and allowed political significance. The balance between witty knowingness and anger make these age-old set ups, with their age-old consequences, feel fresh; less about ‘class’ than about life itself – which, of course, is the only way to get plays about issues such as equality and fairness in Britain today made and seen. Both, given the time and investment they deserve, could become full length plays of power and importance.
Want for Nothing is set in a Cath Kidsoned kitchen. In ‘political theatre’ accusations of ‘preaching to the choir’ are frequent and this piece attempts a rare thing; challenging the actual audience- not taking on the wrongs of an abstracted idea of society, but of the very people who are watching. Brad Birch writes with intelligence and wit, taking a familiar left-wing argument and elegantly twisting it. With the smugness of people who know they are on the ‘right’ side, Martin and Chrissy discuss the vandalised youth centre in the estate close to the more upmarket area where they live, wring their hands at society and the hypocrisies of their friends and generally revel in their own ethical high-mindedness. This builds to an ideological shift so skilfully managed that it seems shockingly inevitable. Yet, although thought provoking, the piece is underdeveloped dramatically; more of an essay or short story than a play.
An Education, which was well received at this years Latitude festival (with the title Joe), is written by Steven Hevey and directed by Kirsty Patrick Ward. While well scripted, with some great dialogue and suitably energetic acting by Matt Ingram as the laddish Ricky, it lacks the shifting levels and complexities of the others; the shape of the story and its outcome are predictable from the outset. Last Man on The Heygate also suffers from a similar problem. It errs on the side of stereotype, using stock characters and predictable shape. A lack of clarity in Richard Fitch’s direction also make it seem less finished than the others. Somewhere Between the News Clip and the Gossip Section is an impressively performed piece of spoken word; with elegance and confidence it takes a familiar set up and starts to unpick it, but remains more of an interesting starting point than a finished work.
To expect writers to tackle such a complex set of issues in fifteen minutes in a scratch-like/ rapid response environment is a very big ask and the plays, for all their flaws, are impressive in their ambition. There is a lot of talent on show here and if the time, money and resources were found to develop these pieces, the results could be excellent. If Jones’ book leaves us with just two question – how has this been allowed to happen and what can be done about it? By tackling very particular scenarios and fighting to keep their many complicating ambiguities and nuances intact, these plays, to their credit, offer up many more.
Posted: October 17, 2012 Filed under: features
Talimhane Tiyatrosu is near Taksim Square, in the centre of Istanbul. Curiously enough, it is also inside a shopping mall. Compared to the teeming streets outside, where the pavements are full of people drinking cay and eating a lunchtime kebap, the polished floors within are eerily quiet, the escalators rising and falling amidst empty clothes shops: an incongruous setting for a cutting edge theatre.
Talimhane is a sister theatre to London’s Arcola in Dalston. Mehmet Ergen is the Artistic Director and founder of both and many members of the creative team divide their time between both cities. Hakan Silahsızoğlu, who is coordinator of international projects andcurrently preparing for the opening of Talimhane’s new studio space, tells me about the theatre.
Talimhane Theatre in its former home.
Named after the Talimhane district where it was originally set up in 2008, gentrification and rising rents have forced the theatre for seek out new premises, not unlike the situation faced by the Arcola last year. The old space was a former garage and in its three years it hosted eight international festivals, including the International Istanbul Theatre Festival,Pera Festival and Amber Festival but the local council’s desire to turn the building over to more profitable business interests forced them to vacate it last November. At present they are using the old cinema at Blackout shopping mall and sharing it with two other theatre companies, but from October they will move to a new space upstairs. This large studio used to be a lighting and electrical shop, a happy side effect of which is that numerous very useful lighting rigs have been left fixed to the ceiling.
Turkey’s contribution to the Europe Now project, Pipa, will be opening the new space in the middle of October. Europe Now is a project that produces, tours and exchanges plays between five countries in Europe: Arcola (London), Riksteatern (Stockholm), Talimhane Tiyatrosu (Istanbul), Theater RAST (Amsterdam) and Ballhaus Naunynstrasse (Berlin). The theatres aim to create a joint vision, with each county producing a new play to tour and be re-staged in the other cities. The project’s focus is on exploring the idea of a post-modern Europe where borders are open and there is a common intercultural future.
Pipa, allows many of these themes to be discussed. Written by Deniz Altun, it is based on the true story of Italian artist Pipa Bacca, who hitch-hiked from Milan to the Middle East in a wedding dress to promote world peace and trust. In 2008, she was raped and killed by a truck driver in Turkey, much national shame and outrage. The play will be coming to the Arcola this January and Talihmane hopes to collaborate more with the Arcola in the coming year, arranging exchanges and staff and performer trips. Dalston has a large and vibrant Turkish community and the Arcola runs a Turkish language theatre group Ala Turka and occasionally shows Turkish plays with English surtitles, such as Everything begins by loving somebody, opening on October 15th. The Talihmane’s current show, Secil Honeywill’s Turkish adaption of Lucy Kirkwood’s It felt empty when the heart went at first but it’s all right now (Önce Bir Boşluk Oldu Kalp Gidince Ama Şimdi İyi), focuses on the human trafficking problems in the country and will also come to Arcola in January, to be directed by Mehmet Ergen.
Lucy Kirkwood’s It felt empty when the heart went at first but it’s all right now in Turkish.
Talihmane is also home to Oyun Yaz, a new writing initiative taking place across seven cities in Turkey. Their aim is to produce hard-hitting plays about the real social and economic issues in Turkey today. It is not common in Turkey for plays to depict the flaws within the society, but some of their work, discussing issues such as honor killings and the relationship between the Turkish and the Kurdish, have now been picked up by state and municipal (Rep.) theatre companies and performed around the country.
In their previous space, the theatre was involved in extensive of outreach work in the local community, where very deprived minority and Roma neighborhoods exist alongside expensive bars and hotels. Their community youth theatre programme gave Kurdish, Roma and Turkish young people a chance to work together and be trained in music, acting and writing. There were encouraged to write their own real life stories and these were then performed at one of Istanbul’s major arts venues, Akbank Arts. The theatre is currently looking for new funding to begin outreach and youth work in the new venue.
There is hope that Talihmane’s move will attract more arts and performance companies to the mall, making it into a space for collaboration and experimentation rather than simply shopping. Time will tell whether this will provide a permanent home for them, but one thing is certain: wherever they are based Talihmane will be busy creating connections, pushing boundaries and telling stories that need to be told.
Posted: October 17, 2012 Filed under: theatre
English National Opera
Written for Exeunt
Despite the presence of an alligator on stage, this new ENO production of Handel’s 1724 opera gets off to a rather slow start, quite an achievement when it features Anna Christy’s Cleopatra singing her first aria while sitting astride the alligator’s back, pulling shiny wet eggs out of it and passing them around. In fact, giant alligator aside, it feels like we might be in for a long night.
This collaboration with Michael Keegan-Dolan of Ireland’s Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre is an odd union and one which doesn’t always work. In some of the early scenes, the performers, dressed as ravens and clad in spangly leotards with enormous black wings, most closely resemble Top of the Pops’ backing dancers, their sequins looking cheap compared with the theatre’s ornate interior. Then Caesar enters sans trousers, carrying a bunch of helium balloons. While Lawrence Zazzo is a renowned and skilful counter-tenor, he has a way of jerking and shivering as he sings which is jarring to watch; fortunately Keegan-Dolan’s production allows for and anticipates audience laughter.
The comedy of the piece feels deliberately awkward. It plays on the constant threat, inherent in all opera, of becoming a parody of itself; if anything the production seems to relish this potential. Tim Mead, as Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and Caesar’s sworn enemy is magnificent; a deranged dandy, he drags a dead giraffe’s severed head across the stage and removes its tongue, forcing Cornelia, his prisoner, to eat it. The alligator eggs reappear as croquet balls, to be placed in his victims’ mouths as he prances about, decadent and evil, singing about hatred with a delighted smile.
Keegan-Dolan’s visual confidence is invigorating. Act Three opens with every prop seen so far scattered across the stage to create a menacing looking nursery. The tableaux is rich and impressive, with Cleopatra’s floor-length tutu making her appear doll-like, as she sits tied to a chair in the centre of the stage. The dancing ravens even make a return, but this time the offending leotards are gone, and they are slumped around the stage, their make up smudged, suffering in the aftermath of a tragic fancy dress party. In contrast with their awkward earlier appearance, they flock towards their despairing Queen with perfect choreography as she sings, covering her with their wings. These dancers also steal the final scene, performing a nuanced enactment of falling in love as Cleopatra and Caesar sing.
Yet despite its energy and visual invention, the production is not without problems. The numerous power struggles and erotic maneuvering which this opera is famous for are almost entirely absent and the use of guns and cowboy outfits – perhaps intended to draw a parallel between this Roman superpower and the US – all feels a little like knock-off Baz Luhrmann.
That said the production contains moments of delicious battiness. As Sesto, here played by Daniela Mack rather than a male performer, swears to avenge her father, the dancers pull stockings over their faces and perform a kind of surreal gimp dance. It’s the contrast of this lunatic imagery with the earnestness of the music that really sticks in the memory.
Posted: October 17, 2012 Filed under: art, exhibitions, features | Tags: Censorship, Iranian Internet, Small Media
Maral Pourkazemi’s infographics
Upon entering Small media
‘s Euston offices, we are told we will need to have our ID’s photographed and that some internet sites will be filtered or blocked in accordance with the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For one night only, the charity have turned their office into both an interactive exhibition and an Iranian internet cafe. They are asking us to imagine a country where you have tickets for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler but the show is suddenly banned because the authorities deem it ‘vulgar’ and ‘hedonistic’; a world where you have no hope of publishing or distributing your work because it doesn’t espouse revolutionary or pro-government ideals and a place where you could be arrested, tortured or imprisoned for using gay websites.
In the small office, two Macs are connected to the Iranian internet and beside them sits a table full of post-it notes bearing the names of various websites. Our job is to find out which ones are filtered or blocked and hang them up above the computers. The connection is painfully slow and even the unblocked sites take a long time to load and show error messages. Most human rights and western news organisations are banned, yet so are the sites for things such as Barbie and American Idol. The results are often arbitrary; gaytimes.co.uk is available but many other smaller LGBT sites are not. Until a short while ago, Middlesex University, Sussex University and Breastcancer.org were also banned due to a filtering system that used letter combinations to decipher content.
After google, yahoo and wikipedia, this is the fourth most viewed site in Iran:
Welcome to Payvandahar.ir. Owing to a recent change in the governments censorship techniques, rather than a warning saying #403 forbidden, a blocked site now takes you this cheerful looking page. It recommends alternative options to the things you are looking for, invites you to post comments and is beginning to build up a community of people ready to write in and suggest other sites that should be banned or filtered.
Iran is a place of many fascinating statistics and Maral Pourkazemi usesInfographics to make such information accessible. Impressively designed, her infographics turn her research (and the contradictorary statistics she has uncovered) into patterns that are reminiscent of geometric Arabic tiles, incorporating Persian script and illustrations into the data.
One design shows the development of the National Internet Network or ‘halal’ internet. Said to have has has been in development since 2005, some sources say it will reach completion next year, leaving Iran cut off from all international websites. Other sources, however, dispute this and say the entire concept is simply scaremongering, used either to encourage people to use home-grown sites under national controll, or as a way for people in the west to damage the public perception of Iran. Whether talk of an entirely separate system is true or not, many people are now using the government controlled clone sites such as Ya-haq (literal translation: calling God) to replace google, and Iranian Web Mail will replace gmail.
Last week the Iranian government announced that Gmail and Google would be blocked (although an unsecured version – far easier to eavesdrop on – did remained unblocked), but this week the ban was lifted. The government seems to be caught in a difficult balancing act: it wants to restrict and control content but not impact negatively on the country’s economic or international relations. This balance is surely almost impossible to achieve and it is suggested that they are fighting a losing battle, as developers are finding more and more ways around such restrictions.
Small Media has invited Tor Project developer, Runa A. Sandvick and Briar‘s Michael Rogers to explain how such innovations work. The Tor project, originally designed to protect US Navy communications, is now used all over the world by activists, journalists and people who want to protect their privacy on the web. Briar is building a secure news and discussion platform that enables groups in authoritarian countries to communicate without government interference and in the event of an internet shut down.
As we leave, we are surreptitiously slipped a tiny USB stick. This contains the Tor software and copies of Small Media’s latest reports on cultural censorship and LGBT rights. This is how such software is likely to be be distributed among friends inside Iran and it is an effective finishing touch. With the continuing fight against legislation such as SOPA and PIPA in the US and UK, this illuminating evening in ‘Iran’ serves to remind us of the access to information we currently take for granted, and how important it is to fight to keep it free.
Written for Exeunt.
Posted: October 17, 2012 Filed under: features, theatre | Tags: Game od Life, John Conway, Rose Lewenstein, Russell Bender, The Yard
Russell Bender studied physics at Cambridge and Rose Lewenstein studied performance art at the Central School of Speech and Drama. Taking John Conway’s 1970s mathematical model, The Game of Life, as its starting point, the play uses interlinking stories to investigate how the concept of emergence shapes our lives. The show is currently playing at the Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick.
Carmel Doohan: How did you come up with the idea of writing a play about a mathematical concept?
Russell Bender: I come from a science background – physics and software – but they were not things I’d engaged with before in my theatre work. I think for a long time I was quite scarred of engaging with them and I kept them very separate.
CD: What made you bring the two disciplines together?
RB: Late last year I realised there was a lot of mileage in combining these things. I was inspired by a video where Will Wright (designer of computer games such as SimCity) and musician Brian Eno discuss the systems they use in their creative work.
(Through a variety of characters, the play investigates a ‘bottom up’ approach: from city planning to SimCity, from ant colonies to the neurons in our brains, it looks at ways in which simple, individual acts create patterns, becoming more than the sum of their parts.)
CD: Can you explain this idea of a ‘bottom-up’ approach?
RB: Normally an artist sits there and says “I want it to be like this and like that”. They sit on top and control and decide. A bottom up approach is more like an ant colony. Individually ants are very stupid – they just wander around and smell what the other ants are doing. They are not obeying instructions from the queen, they are just getting on with what they know how to do and making decisions based on the little part of the world that they can see; if they can smell some food; if they can smell another ant moving towards food. Ants have very simple interactions based on what neighbouring ants are doing. This creates a collective intelligence. It stacks up over thousands of ants and can be very beautiful. It percolates from the bottom up, instead of from the top down.
In Conway’s Game of Life and other mathematical models, complex patterns emerge through a series of simulations and rules. This is how SimCity works – it’s not a game with a story, there are a series of rules and the game play emerges from that. The same with Brian Eno’s music; he starts by creating seeds and little bits of rules- it’s all done on a computer- then he just tweaks the rules and wait to see what happens. A tune emerges from that.
CD: The play uses such patterns both in its choreography and its plot. How did you get from these fairly abstract ideas to a coherent play?
RB: These ideas reminded me of methods I’d used while stuck in a devising process; I would use rules to generate movement and govern what can be done in space. This would create very interesting patterns and repetitions. The movement and choreography came from fact we were staging it on a grid. We did some experiment in workshops – classroom scenes where chairs were laid out. We wanted to make things look like Conway’s game. We needed the action on stage resemble the maths model and bring out patterns.
CD: How did the devising process work?
RB: We had lot of chats and did a lot of research, but it was Rose who wrote the script. When she had fifteen or twenty pages of stuff- giving the seeds of the characters and relationships- we did some workshops at East 15 acting school. We played around with ideas and characters and looked at what we could do with the material based on following rules.
Rose Lewenstein: I would have a quite isolated period of writing a draft, then come back to Russell. It was great because I’m not usually comfortable showing my work so early to a director. But because he was part of the process and we were on the journey together right from beginning, it was very exciting. We did some more work-shopping in the National Theatre Studio in July, with professional actors instead of students, and by that time we had two members of the cast and the designer (Mila Sanders) on-board. And we had a script. The story, character and arcs were mostly all there.
CD:Why did you choose to take your idea to The Yard?
RB: I knew Jay (Artistic Director of the Yard) and Tarek (Associate Artistic Director). I was at drama school with Jay and in a directors group thing with Tarek. I’d just done six months at the National Theatre as a staff director and at the end of November last year I had a week hanging out there, knowing I was about to become unemployed again, wondering what I wanted to do next.
I mentioned these vague ideas to Mark Rosenblatt, who manages the staff directors. He is a great mentor and interesting provocateur. He gave me a kick up the arse and said, “You’ve got to do something with this. You should be talking to the Yard”. I don’t think there are many venues where artists at this stage in our careers could take a big risk like this. Lots of venues are very good at supporting risks, but they do it with artists they know and we are not there yet.
RL: When we spoke to the Yard, we didn’t even have a story yet. We just knew going to work together on something.
Human stories. Photo: Katherine Leedale
CD: How did the two of you end up working together on this piece? (Bender directed Lewenstein’s previous play, Entries on Love, at Rich Mix, earlier in the year and she has worked with the Royal Courts New Writers programme.)
RD: I was mulling on all these ideas and we went for drink. After a few glasses of wine I said, “Why don’t we do something along these lines?
RL: I was totally ignorant about these scientific ideas, but the more I drank, the more I said, “Yeah, cool”, as if I knew what he was talking about! I don’t have a science background, but at one point when I asked Russell, “Why have you asked me to do this?’ He said, “It’s because you don’t have a science background that I need you to do it. Otherwise it will become a science lecture”.
RB: If two scientists collaborated it would risk ending up with something very scientific. I knew Rose was brilliant at people and stories and was interested in writing stuff that tackled complicated issues.
RL: I was learning a lot about structure and form. I wanted to write about human stories and I felt we should try to connect these ideas to something human. The script couldn’t be emergent itself, because that would mean not having a writer – but I wanted to create a snow ball effect, of the stories colliding with one another and leading to something inevitable. I wanted to pose a question about faith – faith with a small ‘f’ – faith in the world and in human nature.
There were a series of Eureka moments for me. One was a Radiolab podcast about Emergence. Halfway through it the presenters have a debate about whether or not it’s depressing that there isn’t a top down system or leader in life; if it all comes from chance, is this depressing and meaningless or is it magical and amazing? This tied in with a lot of things I was exploring in the early scenes to do with faith. I knew that wanted to write something that involved interconnected stories and in same way as Russell was doing, I wanted the structure to emulate the concept of emergence. A language of patterns and rules is deeply ingrained in both the movement and script itself. It really ties it all together.
The ideas explored in the play seem to have infiltrated through the entire process of its creation, and there is an impressive rigour to the way the form expresses the content and the content plays with the form. Making complex ideas emotionally engaging and allowing philosophical concepts to be looked at in fresh and subtle ways, Game of Life is a fascinating play.
Despite the apparent precision of the opening night, Bender and Lewenstein still see piece as work in progress. Hurrying off, full of excitement, for another day of rehearsal, they are definitely two to watch out for in the future.
Game of Life plays at the Yard Theatre, Hackney Wick until 22 September 2012. For more information and tickets, visit the website.
Posted: October 17, 2012 Filed under: theatre | Tags: Arcola, Grimeborn, Nick Blackburn, opera, Philip Venables
Written for Exeunt
This varied programme features three short opera’s, each one looking at the trials of love from a different perspective. First up is La Voix Humaine, Francis Poulenc’s opera for solo soprano based on the play by Jean Cocteau. Sung in French, it involves a woman having a conversation on the telephone with her estranged lover. Director Ilan Reichel keeps the set up stylish and simple and Soprano Katerina Mina is beautiful and thoroughly convincing as the heartbroken heroine. Even to someone who can only pick up the word rien, it is captivating.
Number two, is a section from opera-in-progress Tonseisha and it opens with the killer line “Isn’t it wonderful to wake up in the morning, all alone, and not have to tell somebody that you love them. When you don’t. Any more.” The opera singers are more like backing singers in this piece and, along with a flautist, they accompany what seems to be a series of haiku’s. A young Japanese woman is haunted by cult author Richard Brautigan and combining Brautigan’s words with his own, writer Kim Ashton creates a riddling poetic dance about whether or not a couple should remain together. With an amplified typewriter used for percussion, although the story is slight, the mix of sound and poetry is evocative.
It is, however, the final show that you will go home thinking about. Unleashed,a verbatim piece based on interviews with gay men about what they like to do in bed and why, is funny and poignant, with a gravitas that feels fitting to the medium. It starts slowly and strangely; it is unclear whether we are watching a tech set up or if the show has actually begun. We then notice that one of the men is naked. He continues moving wires and laptops around and there is much to-ing and fro-ing of microphones until the casually dropped but brilliantly earned line “Is everyone turned on now?” serves as a cue for the operatics to commence.
Original and intelligent in both form and content, young men narrate tales of sexual exploits while a male soprano wails out the I’s, like’s, y’knows, andreally’s that pepper the confessions. This makes for stuttering, broken, stories, the sung elements becoming a haunting refrain of “I…Like… I… really… like…I…I…I…I…You know…You know…I…Like…” This brilliantly captures the emotion pulsating, but unspoken, within many of the encounters described. Unable to turn itself into a coherent sentence it becomes a magnificent echoing howl.
Throughout the performance, laptops on the floor at either side of the stage show footage of a Geisha performing. A crudely made up young man in a sack-like gingham dress copies the moves, fanning and bowing in a graceless pantomime while two violinists play ferociously. Suddenly a red strip-light flickers on and we are in something more like an underground BDSM club. With dark ritualistic intent, the boy who was naked in the beginning is covered in clay and paint and left to stagger blinded around the stage.
These precise, yet opaque enactments are reminiscent of Matthew Barney’sCremaster Cycle; dripping in inexplicable meaning, they reference a world unknown to most viewers and feel like a genuine attempt to symbolise and express ideas that can be explained in no other way.
Writer and director Nick Blackburn is looking to make this into a full length piece and if he does it could be fantastic. Blackburn is using the form in a way that allows the utter mess of need and desire to be explored, yet also skilfully contained. These dense, sexual contradictions seem an ideal topic for the power and poetic drama that opera can provide.
For more information about Grimeborn Festival go to the Arcola Theatre’s website
For more information about Unleashed to their blog
Posted: September 2, 2012 Filed under: books, features
Written for Exeunt
In elegantly precise, shorthand stage-directions, Smith pulls her world up to the curb alongside us and says Get in. She doesn’t stop; you have to run a little, then throw yourself in a way that is neither comfortable nor expected. There is a barely cursory You in? before she accelerates off. There just isn’t time for the nonsense language usually associates itself with because by the end of the one and a half page first chapter, she has got you to a place most books don’t even attempt to take you in their entirety. She is saying, let’s cut the bullshit. Let’s admit that we see things and we know what they means. Let’s not pretend our outsides are our insides; we all know the truth here.
Set around the trajectories of four people – Leah, Natalie (nee Keisha), Nathan and Felix – who grew up the Cadwell housing estate in Wilsden, we spend time some time inside each characters mind. Life has been kinder to some than to others, but it is not always easy to tell which. This is a book about the price of escape, the price of idealism and the price of turning away from it. The very first page offers us this: “Here’s what Michel likes to say: not everyone can be invited to the party.” Leah doesn’t agree with this statement- or doesn’t want to agree. It is in this gap between what she wants to think and what she can no longer deny, that the book takes place.
Smith says that one of the reasons for the fragmentary, stop-start nature of the narrative is that she now has a young daughter and can only write in short bursts. Whatever the reason, it works: we live in bursts; what is life if not a strange combination of absolutely unrelenting continuity and absolutely nothing of the sort. In an interview earlier this month she also said that she wanted to write something like a “problem play…one of those little machines in which you come out the other end and feel odd.” Something akin to Clydeborne Park perhaps; plot, merely an excuse for a gentle yet brutally final stripping away of our excuses. In this elegant yet ruthless dissection, NW is similar to Richard Yate’s Revolutionary Road (a book that could also, in many ways, be seen as the very necessary novelisation of a play.) Richard Ford’s famous comment about Revolutionary Road also sums up NW : “Handing it over cold feels clumsy. We almost would rather not, for all the crucial things that cannot be thought and said again.”
We are often given no depth of field. Sometimes this seems unnecessarily confusing, as when in an early chapter, song lyrics from The Kinks blend, undifferentiated into Woolfesque stream of consciousness and dialogue. Yet it soon becomes clear that it is far more than self-conscious quirkiness or posturing: Smith’s technique of non-differentiation is crucial; we are given this ongoing stream of advertisements, sights, sounds, speech, interior monologue and memory unfiltered so that we can witness the characters filtering; we get to know them by watching how they make the objective subjective; what they focus on, what they prioritize and what they ignore.
This is a book that begs to be re-read. You find yourself reading, looking forward to re-reading. On the first go, you don’t have time to suck out the meaning that is packed into every offhand observation because you want to find out what’s going to happen next. And what’s-going-to-happen-next doesn’t mean action or plot: In the hands of an author with this much fierce insight, a character simply walking down the street, thinking, is an epic battlefield.
The middle section follows Felix, and allows Smith to display her talent for dialogue. She can have a man breathing in front of you with one line and have you caring about what happens to him in two. Smith’s people do not speak to illuminate their character, describe their predicament or voice their authors opinions. They speak because it is what people do. They speak because they are trying to live their lives.
The final section is almost an essay. Like her non-fiction (Changing my mind: Occasional essays (2009)) it takes on complex issues with wit and fights hard to address them with the rigour they deserve. It is in this section where Smith drops any of the ‘rules’ and goes into freeform; her voice mingles with Natalie’s and the concept of character itself becomes an idea to be interrogated. Numbered paragraphs lay out random episodes in Natalie’s life like riddles and the reader must do what they will with them. Critics have found this section cold or unnecessarily stylized, but surely this is a more realistic shape for back-story than a string of cause and effect? This said, the section has its flaws: ‘The listings’ Natalie keeps checking are left unexplained for too long- it is one of the few visible plot devices in a book reassuringly free of such annoyances- and her related actions also seem slightly forced.
We live in a society built entirely on contradictions and it is this very real reality that Smith is pinning to the page. This tension is coiled into every half lie, every laugh at an unfunny joke, every alteration in an anecdote that used to contain meaning. As we read, we wait for something, anything, to dramatise it away, but we are given nothing to release the pressure. It continues, exhaustingly real; people burst out with truths, they say exactly what they are thinking- but it makes no difference. Moments are forced to carry unbearable weight and then two pages later dismissed as completely substanceless. It turns out that this dramatic event we await, is also what the characters are waiting for; they too are searching for something to give the relief of a conclusion.
Like pate on toast, NW is a spread of digested, distilled, regurgitated insides. You are what you eat and the liver cannot lie. What is happening is clear for the reader to see from page one; this story is about whether the characters can admit it to themselves or each other. The tragic denouement happens on the final page. Dry as bone, it offers not release, but the evaporation of everything that preceded it. The cost of being able to see, and of being able to admit you are able to see, is suddenly far too high and can simply no longer be afforded. Self -preservation arrives like the reaper, swinging his scythe at the level of thought. Being alive will kill you; then you will have to live on.