The regular visitor will have noticed – and probably appreciated – the recent reduction in the rate of production of new content here. This is not down to the lack of new subject matter gold for me to spin into textual straw, like an anti-Rumplestiltskin, but rather to a shortfall in the particular form of energy needed to perform that transmutation: some sort of motivational band gap, as it were. However, I am back in the writer’s saddle for now – and with a backlog of ideas to throw against the wall of the internet to see if any stick.
Talking of long absences, with the exception of a single trip to see King Lear – made possible by my renewed possession of a car – it had been a couple of years since I last visited Chichester. The good burghers of that city might wonder what they have done to offend me: I can reassure them that they are blameless, the lacuna can be explained by the terrible unreliability of Southern Railways for the past several years. Brighton has also suffered (or enjoyed) a general lack of my presence in the same period and for the same reason and as a city does not welcome the car. Still, other south coast cities’ loss has been Southampton’s gain!
The weekend before last I did voyage to Chichester, once again prompted by a visit to the theatre. A friend was involved in a production at the Minerva and so I decided to risk Southern – knowing that I could always fallback on my car – and attend the Saturday matinée. Travelling by train, I arrived very early – better than late or not at all – and so had my first visit to the Pallant House Gallery for the first time in a good while. As ever, it contained a multitude of visual delights: I think my highlight was the glorious designs of Sheila Bownas. However, more important (at least to this post) was the conversation I had with a member of staff as I was negotiating my (free!) entry to the gallery. Through this dialogue, I discovered the existence of a hitherto unknown devised theatre piece taking place in Southampton this past weekend. The city I call home likes to protect its cultural gems behind a thick veil of secrecy: sometimes this purdah can only be penetrated from a distance.
The plays I went to see in Chichester, the double bill random/generations by debbie green tucker (her choice of capitalisation) were very good: each a study of love and loss. Without the personal connection I would probably not have noticed the plays, let alone travelled to see them: which would have been my loss. It was such a joy to hear different voices from the stage and voices still carrying a very topical message: though both plays were around a decade old. Not only were the plays both funny and moving, but generations was accompanied by a small ensemble from the South African Cultural Choir who were in fabulous voice. I think the plays had the youngest audience (on average) that I have ever seen in Chichester and it was certainly the most ethnically diverse (in that it was ethnically diverse). It was not a huge audience – the theatre was competing with bright sunshine, some nuptials near Slough and a kickabout in north London – but I’m told we were responsive and those I could see really enjoyed the experience. I believe there are a few days left to catch random/generations should you find yourself near Noviomagus Reginorum…
Inspired by my discovery at Pallant House, this past Saturday I once again retreated from the heat of the afternoon sun to see some theatre. My Life Closed Twice by Gauntlet Theatre was staged under the Arches, which I last visited to see a Playlist gig, and was a devised piece based on the experience of living with schizophrenia. It was one of the most thought-provoking pieces of theatre (or anything else) I’ve ever seen and did an amazing job of creating a little understanding of some of the issues facing people with schizophrenia. I was the audience member selected to try and read a short paragraph will listening on headphones to a simulation of the more benign of the “voices” that might be constant background to the life of a schizophrenic. Whilst I could still read out the text – perhaps thanks to a life spent working in open plan offices – it was more difficult and required a lot of concentration. If this were a permanent state, it would be exhausting and exceedingly ego depleting – and this was without having to cope with the more strident and negative voices that can also be a feature of the illness. The play made me realise the strong similarities between a normal brain (or at least mine – which I am, controversially, going to use as an example of normality) and that of a schizophrenic: I think we all have the same basic underlying symptoms but in the more typical brain the unwanted voices are very quickly damped into silence (sometimes even before they can begin) almost all of the time. It has also made me think rather differently about some aspects of my insomnia: the racing or circling thoughts that keep me awake seemed eerily similar to some of the voices I saw acted out on stage.
As I was watching the play and finding it fascinating, I did wonder how realistic it was. What I discovered talking to the cast afterwards was that it was an autobiographical piece: the chap playing the protagonist was portraying himself and his own experiences. He was a lovely chap and great fun to talk to, though it may have been slightly tactless of me to suggest that his brain had rather typecast the “voices” in his head. The life and experiences I saw played out on stage bore no relationship to any version of schizophrenia I have ever seen on screen. However, they did remind me of some of the issues experienced by those with Autism discussed in Steve Silberman’s book Neurotribes and his own experience of OCD which David Adam described in his book The Man Who Couldn’t Stop. I can’t help feeling that not only are those with mental illness poorly served (at least at times) by the health and caring services but even more so by the media and, as a result, society at large. The voices that dominate the media seem to be from a very narrow segment of the lived experience of humanity: there is no shortage of extreme political views on offer but these almost all seem to come from the same very slender slice of society. These people fill the compulsory current affairs slots in our media with thought- and empathy-free argument: I presume current affairs is mandatory as the laws that make it so are created by the guests who get to spout their views in these slots. Far more useful might be a requirement for a broader range of voices to be heard on the media, free of pressure from ratings, creating content on matters that interest them (and not this is not a pitch for GofaDM to get its own Netflix special). We could easily live without the endless speculation, pointless argument and failure to answer questions that characterises so much current affairs and re-purpose that time and budget for something more useful.
My Mind Closed Twice has finished its home-town run in Southampton but I believe those near Reading or Gothenberg do still have a chance to catch it.
Theatre and other fringe culture does seem to offer a route for more voices to take part in the dialogue but it is not easy even there and money is always problematic. Fringe culture, by its very nature, can only reach modest audiences, whereas an idiot demagogue can reach millions instantly (feel free to pick your own idiot demagogue: there are plenty to go around). I’m not sure I have a solution, other than being an audience for the sort of things I want to see and feel should be supported and hoping to encourage others to join me. Going out to culture is my primary form of economic activity, if we exclude eating and drinking, but I’m not sure I can produce societal change on my own – well, not without violent revolution and its been a bit to warm for that of late and there is only the one of me (for which we are all grateful)!
I would seem to have returned from my hiatus in a preaching mood: this will probably wear off… It must be the effect of two Saturday afternoons hiding from the sun with truly great theatrical experiences which, like all the best experiences, live with you long after they have finished. I found myself wondering why are such gems so rarely (if ever) made available to those who’d rather sit at home watching the flickering of polarised light twisted this way and that to create colourful, apparently moving images?