How theatre tells us to fear the inadequate life

I love theatre. I love all different types and styles of theatre: Shakespeare, Brecht, Stanislavsky, Artaud, Grotowsky, Meyerhold, Lecoq, agitprop, avant garde, physical theatre, mime, puppetry, theatre of the absurd, naturalism, modernism, post-modernism. I can go on. I love the moment when the lights dim and then it’s often a journey of the mind and the emotions until applause breaks out hours later and I remember I’m in a theatre again. And the best theatre transports not just the imagination, the mind, the emotions but the soul. Think of McKellen in Richard the Third, and Godot and Lear. Dench in Macbeth. Rylance in Twelfth Night and Endgame. Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest. Graeae Theatre are great in everything they do, but Bent was magnificent!

Leave the caves of being. Come. The mind breathes outside the mind. (Artaud.)

As kids, we all experiment with theatre from the moment we start to play. Role play. Then we get creative and try and refine what we do. A talented young actor said to me this week about her GCSE performance piece, ‘My play is pretty dark.’ We explore issues we don’t want to happen in our own life from the safety of the stage. I remember being allowed to ‘do’ an assembly as a kid at school, making experimental theatre, a row of friends in black clothes with white masks jerking around to sombre music,  me dressed up in a long black cloak and a skeleton mask. A girl called Higby tried not to breathe while lying on a table under a cloth as I intoned the John Donne lines, below:

Death be not proud

Though some may call thee mighty and dreadful

For though art not so

I thought I was cool. My friends thought it was funny when some of the teachers took out hankerchieves and snivelled. Looking back, I wasn’t cool or funny. I was using the stage to prod people’s emotions about a subject I then knew nothing about, when the audience clearly did.

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Some years later, I directed The Mother, a great and often ignored play, by Bertolt Brecht. The lead was played by a talented young actor who is now Amanda Lawrence. Remember her performancein the film,  Suffragette. Then, she was just as magnificent as Pelagea Vlasova, the eponymous mother.

She spoke a line in The Mother which has always stayed with me. Resonated.

Do not fear death so much but rather the inadequate life.

Simple words but profound. A motto. A guide by which we can make our lives more meaningful. Death, of course, is The undiscovered country from whose bourn No traveller returns. We don’t know what to expect. Many people offer many suggestions about death, what comes afterwards. Heaven, Hell, The Afterlife. Or, of course, it could be nothing at all. I love the way Andrew Scott said the lines of Hamlet’s soliloquy recently. Not the often spoken  To die, to sleep No more… but To die, to sleep. No more. There’s the rub. That’s it. The end. Nothing. Infinite space. Brilliant interpretation.

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Hence the importance of making life all we can make it. Not to spend it fearing something which might happen, will certainly happen, but packing present time with good things: kindnesses, learning, making fun, loving, excitement, creating, contemplation, mischief, dancing on tables, making music, hugging, laughing, whatever is ‘adequate’ and beyond. I recently spoke to a fascinating vicar, who suggested that GP doctors, rather than ask patients ‘Do you drink or smoke?’ as lifestyle questions, should ask ‘What makes you truly feel alive?’ She has a point. It’s a question we should ask ourselves from time to time. We need to strive for good health, but we also need to live an adequate life, at least. So many people live inadequate lives, bound in circumstances they can’t control and can’t escape from, and it’s both a tragedy and a travesty. Brecht’s words are a bare minimum: we should expect and work towards adequacy, at least.

Artaud explains how theatre motivates and shapes our experience,  in his own passionate way. Theatre inspires us to move away from inadequacy and mundanity towards something which can truly change lives .

A real theatrical experience shakes the calm of the senses, liberates the compressed unconscious and drives towards a kind of personal revolt…

This week, my little cat was knocked down in a lane where only three vehicles pass each day. Pushkin. I rescued her two years ago, a skinny, starving stray in a city and she rewarded me with one thing I don’t find anywhere else. Unconditional time. If I called her, she’d come and rub her face against mine. She’d lie in the crook of my arm when I was typing. She’d pat my face, stroke it, show me her tummy and ask for hugs. Humans can’t give you that. Humans are always too busy doing something else, aren’t we? That offer of unconditional time has gone now. But theatre is always there, ready with a quotation, something which fits the bill exactly and clarifies the moment and explains how grief affects us. Brecht again The Mother, after her son Pavel is shot. It wasn’t reason that made me weep. But when I stopped, reason had something to do with that.

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I’ve lost my best ever cat. I hope she had an adequate life. She wasn’t much more than four years old. Now Shakespeare’s words come to me:

And will he not come again?
  No, no, he is dead,
  Go to thy deathbed.
 He never will come again.

So, Brecht was right about fear. Not death, but an inadequate life. The inadequate life is to be avoided and we must make the most of each moment. Theatre is a condensation of life in the form of a play, and there are pithy words for every occasion.  All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare said, and we need to make the most of the short hours traffic of our stage before we end up Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Brecht had a more than adequate life: women adored him, his plays were well received, he was a prolific writer, although he was a refugee, his plays blacklisted due to his Marxism. That’s more than adequate, though. That’s inspirational.

Artaud was a genius, flawed and hospitalised. He died alone in a psychiatric clinic, at the foot of his bed, clutching his shoe.

Meyerhold was brutally tortured and sentenced to death by firing squad. He said:

I want to burn with the spirit of the times. I want all servants of the stage to recognize their lofty destiny. I am disturbed at my comrades’ failure to rise above narrow caste interests which are alien to the interests of society at large. Yes, the theatre can play an enormous part in the transformation of the whole of existence.
Their lives weren’t inadequate, though. Far from it. They were game changers, all of them. Inspirational people. Their theatre is energising, enabling us to suspend disbelief, so that our souls soar and reach out for new ideas, making our lives richer and our hope to rise above mediocrity becomes intense, greater. As Swiss director and performance artist Natasha Tsakis says:
We know the Arts are the archives of our human history, the wind of invention and the heartbeat of humanity

That’s well above adequate. I’ll aspire to that.

 

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The saga continues. He’s been spotted

I haven’t given him up. He’s special. He’s my Majick cat. And since I moved to the wilds of Somerset, he’s been the Wanderlust King. I haven’t seen him for four weeks but, since he took off that Thursday morning with a gleam in his eye, I knew he had his sights set on a life of freedom, open fields, wide skies and sheep worrying.

Then, today, I heard there’d been a sighting.

My neighbour – I have great neighbours here – was in his house, painting the walls of his lounge and he turned around to look into the amber eyes of a low slung cat, in perfect condition, sleek and short-legged, broad shoulders, thick tail, a little bat face. They stared at each other for a while, and then the cat turned around and strolled away through the door. I showed my neighbour a picture of Majick on my phone. ‘That’s him. That’s the one. I’ve seen him around a couple of times.’

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So he’s out there. He’s ok. I’m so relieved.

Apparently, he’s living with the pigs over by the silo, catching rodents, hunting and looking a million dollars. Up to his catty tricks, dodging and diving, weaving and worrying the wildlife.

Later this week, I’ll go down and see if I can find him among the troughs and the silage. I’ll call his name and see if he’ll come running and, if he does, I’ll invite him home to dinner and feed him and spoil him rotten.

Hopefully, he’ll come back for a visit, for supper, to stay the night or for a few days’ holiday. However long he wants. He might remember me. He might even sit on my knee and purr and push his damp nose into my cheek.

Or he might turn round and run. He might not recognise me. He might have forgotten.

But he’s alive and well-fed and happy. He’s Majick cat and he’s living the dream. Still, it would be nice to see him again, to remind him of old times and to tell him there will always be an arm chair next to the fire with his paw prints on.

That’s if the pigs will let him go. He’s such a character, no doubt they’ll have taken him into their hearts and their sties. It would put Colin’s nose out of joint though if he came back. There would be a stand-off and I know Maj would come out on top, particularly after all the outdoor lifestyle and field training. I hope I can see him. I hope he’ll at least say hello and I’ll know he’s alive and well and kicking ass. We’ll see.

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Majick cat, where are you?

When I moved house, I took my three cats, each in a basket, in my car. On the way, I told them they were going to a lovely place where they could run amok and have fun to their hearts’ content. Colin and Pushkin settled quietly. But Majick was not a happy cat.

Majick is about six years old. He came to me from a cat rescue centre when he was almost two and it was love at first sight. Affectionate and obstinate, a cat with his own ways and his own mind, he ruled the other cats in my house with determined grumpiness. Pushkin is my cat, a familiar, always on my knee, but she’d jump off if Maj wanted the space. Colin Feral always deferred to Majick when it came to the feeding bowls. Majick is Boss Cat.

Majick was always called Majick. Probably Magic. His first home was with a Romanian lady in a flat in Plymouth and he’d never been outside. He would even use the toilet in her bathroom. He was a cat with dignity and good manners. She was broken hearted to leave him, but she took him to the cats’ rescue, along with his bowl and toys and written instructions about the tastes and habits of  ‘Magic cat.’ So, of course, he came to me and was pampered and spoiled and, as soon as he smelled the outdoor air, he developed wanderlust, which I encouraged. I’d often see him half a mile away in the bushes, doing his own catty thing. He’d stay out all night. Sometimes he was away for days.

So when we arrived at the new house, I put the cats  in an upstairs room with food and toys while  furniture was being bundled about downstairs. Pushkin went to sleep. Colin found a hole in the stairs and covered himself in cobwebs. Majick made his feelings clear by pooing everywhere.

As the weeks progressed and the cats had to stay indoors, Majick peed in places no cat should pee. He began by weeing on my yoga mat. He then urinated in the vegetable rack and I had to wash pumpkins and onions several times.

I’d never been to Waitrose and thought I’d try out the local one. I parked the banger in between the BMWs and the Jags and in I flounced, selecting a few organic vegetables and a packet of quinoa. I queued properly and paid for my purchases, then pulled out my recycled bag, a strong plastic one that  I’d bought in a Leclerc somewhere in Brittany, and I was about to stuff the shopping in. The smile on the cashier’s face froze and her nose began to twitch. I could see and smell why. Majick had peed in the shopping bag.

He was not a happy cat and it troubled me every night as he pressed his nose to the window and howled. ‘Just three weeks, Maj, and you can go out,’ I promised.

Then the  time came. We went out together into the garden, me with the three black cats following and, at first, they were tentative, sniffing everything, staying close to my heels. Within a few minutes, Pushkin had caught a mouse, brought it in, dropped it and it was running around the kitchen. I failed totally to coax the mouse out from under the cooker with a piece of vegan cheese, so Big G cornered it with a cardboard box. ‘Got him.’

The mouse shot up his trouser leg and lodged somewhere between his thigh and his belly button. Somewhere warm and safe, no doubt. I watched, laughing inappropriately, as he ran outside doing the hokey cokey and came back with his jeans around his ankles and the good news that the mouse was now safe in the field next door.

The cats began to feel more comfortable outside. It was sunny. But Majick had a gleam in his eye every time his little nostrils sniffed the clean air. The next day, he didn’t come back. Six days passed: I thought the worst and hoped for the best. Then one evening, he sauntered around the corner, fatter, happy and demanding food. I picked him up, hugged him, but his eyes were still on the hills.

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Three weeks ago, he climbed on the wall, looked at the sheep in the field next door and his eyes glazed over. His bead nose sniffed freedom in the air and I thought, he’s off. And off he went.

I expected him to come back after a few days, but I haven’t seen him since. Each morning I walk towards the misty fields and shout ‘Majick’, and listen, but there’s only the call of crows and the grumble of the sheep.

I’ve asked about, talked to neighbours and farmers. Apparently, lots of feral and farm cats live around here. I’ve seen a tabby and a wiry ginger tom, but not Majick Cat.

I believe he might come back. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t let myself think of him lying still under a combine harvester or lost down a distant lane. He may have found himself a new home and, if so, he will be well loved. I imagine him running wild, a rabbit hanging in his mouth, hunkering down in a field as the sun rises. I hope he’s happy.

One spring morning, he may saunter back. Or it might be a bit cold one evening in winter and he’ll think, I’ll go back to that place where they have a warm fire and they feed me. I haven’t given him up yet. I’ll recognise the yowl, the persistent howling at the window which orders me to let him in and rip open the cat food at once. And I know I’ll go running outside, pick him up, hug him stupidly and yell ‘Oh Maj, where have you been?’ like I always do, and he’ll stare into space over my shoulder and put up with me kissing his neck then, as soon as I put him down, he’ll run to the food bowl and look up at me, frown and wait.

He’s Majick cat. I hope he’s out there somewhere. I hope he’s having a cat whale of a time. Colin doesn’t miss him. He’s Boss Cat now. And Pushkin monopolises my knee and the food bowls and she is quite happy. But I haven’t given him up, not yet. He’ll be back…

 

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Of cats and women

Tom Jones sang ‘What’s new, Pussycat?’ in 1967. That was nearly fifty years ago and thank goodness attitudes to women have changed since then. He suggested his girlfriend: ‘go and powder your cute little pussycat nose.’ I’d tell him where to go!

Current attitudes suggest that  men and women play equal roles and make joint decisions in a sexual relationship, equality of responsibility being the main emphasis. Gone are the days when women were passive objects in a man’s game of sexual conquest.

It is unthinkable now, for example, that a man would have sex with an intoxicated woman and claim that she had consented because she was too drunk to decide otherwise, and to suggest that it was all her fault for being irresponsible, and not his at all for taking advantage.

It is inconceivable that an adult male would seduce a fifteen year old girl and claim he couldn’t help it as she was ‘jailbait’. Today’s modern man would not stand around in the pub, boasting about sexual conquests with his friends, feeling proud of himself, bragging about a woman he shagged and discarded the night before. No self respecting man would behave like that nowadays and expect respect,- would he?

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The detritus from  past decades where men called the shots  in relationships is surfacing now: males who were allowed to apportion the sexual blame to women after dictating the terms of their abuse are now being called to task.

Two of The Tremeloes pop group are currently denying an assault of a 15 year old girl in 1968, a year after Tom Jones suggested that his Pussycat ‘go and make up your cute little pussycat eyes!’ and of course there is some correlation between prevalent attitudes to women in those days and the sexual abuse which is coming to light now that we have clearer moral standards  about reprehensibility in place, supported by the law.

No longer can men such as the DJs and pop stars of the 60s and 70s get away with objectifying and abusing women and then claiming they had no choice about their behaviour We don’t accept now that they are somehow relieved from any blame by making women take responsibility for what men have decided they will do to women’s bodies.

However, we still live in a time when girls are groomed for sex and there are more prosecutions than ever for violence against women. Even the internet is being used to turn vulnerable women into victims. So how far have we really come?

It is this ‘blame the victim’ mentality which was the cause of so much abuse and inequality in our mothers’ generation. The ‘she asked for it’ syndrome which excused and exonerated the perpetrators of abuse and blamed the victim is still part of how some members of society view women.

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Some women don’t help. A female judge condemned rape victims who had consumed alcohol. Apparently, 50% of women are ready to blame the victims and one in ten said that if women  dress or dance ‘provocatively’, then they are ‘partly responsible’ for sexual abuse by men.

There is still a long way to go before all women achieve courtesy and consideration across all areas of society and all aspects of their lives.

The majority of men do not think or behave in this way and most women know only too well how it feels to be judged according to gender. However, as long as there are some people out there who want to victimise the victim, who are prepared to allow someone who is abused to be seen as responsible for their ill-treatment, such abuse and objectification will continue.

Misogynistic lyrics in pop songs don’t help and there are far worse offenders than Tom Jones, who at least had the good grace to sing ‘I’m so willing to care for you’, even if it was only to rhyme with ‘thrilling’. It’s not just lyrics either: there are some sexually submissive images of women in pop videos that suggest that this is how females should behave in order to proclaim their sexuality and gain male interest.

I am all for people dressing as they please, doing as they please and promoting themselves as they please, so long as it has no negative impact on anyone else. Today’s women have, arguably, more choice, more freedom and more opportunity to behave how they wish to within society than their mothers and grandmothers.

Most modern men are more sensitive and we accept now that gender roles are more fluid. There is a multitude of role models, celebrity couples who demonstrate equality, respect and responsibility as a strong part of their relationship. But there is still a long way to go before all women achieve  courtesy and consideration across all areas of society and all aspects of their lives.

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Equality and respect between both genders are vital goals for us all, and  we need to support rather than admonish the victims of abuse. Women should wear what they want and behave how they wish, within the limitations of the law, without fear of reprisal and blame and it is the best of men who celebrate them for who they are and how they wish to express themselves.

After all, as Robert A. Heinlein said: ‘Women and cats will do as they please, and men and dogs should relax and get used to the idea.’