Tag Archives: London

Feeling and Power

We are at the National Theatre and the cast is on the stage, taking their final bows. Hedda Gabler has melted back into Ruth Wilson, Olivier Award-winning actress, and as the applause eases just enough she projects a few words over the crowd.

“Today is a historic day…” As she begins I am holding my breath, because she is using her platform powerfully and I am grateful. “We couldn’t march. But we march on stage.” The applause erupts again.

“How do you feel, after seeing Hedda Gabler?” As we exit the theatre into the bracing cold I know Sam is wondering because we have both been in a funk all day, wallowing in our January miseries. I did not go to the Women’s March, and I am wracked with guilt. “I feel better after that,” Sam admits, but I shake my head. “I feel the same as before,” I say, “Nothing.”

Over the last few weeks I have oscillated between feeling deflated and crushingly disconsolate, so I have not been much fun to be around. There is nothing wrong. It has merely been a feeling, like existing in a pot of tar: suspended in blackness with little ability to move.

Unable to move and at the brink of my vast irrationality. I say I want what I don’t; I throw tantrums when the innermost parts of myself are not correctly interpreted, through ESP or some other way. “Did you see yourself in Hedda?” is another thing Sam asks me, after she has flung several bouquets of flowers violently across the stage and confessed that she did not ever like the apartment in which her husband, stretched now to his financial limits, has acquired for her. Yes, yes of course. But surely a part of all of us is Hedda? (In the introduction to his English translation, the critic William Archer writes that “the Hedda type is not so common as all that, else the world would quickly come to an end.” If it should, with a view to recent events, I know it won’t be the Hedda-types who will be to blame.)

As we walk towards the Golden Jubilee Bridge on our way to the Embankment tube station, we discuss where power lies in Hedda Gabler. On the surface, Hedda herself has very little– every move she has made freely has served only to trap her further in isolation; in her marriage, in her home, in her thoughts. What power Hedda does have lies in the way she makes the other characters, both men and women, take to her, candidly offering her information she can then use against them. It is not until she attempts this with Judge Brack that she realises she is not the only one with this ability.

And there is a power projected onto her as well: the power to bear children. The insinuation and Tesman’s hope that Hedda may be pregnant is made several times, but a child would imprison her finally and completely. When Lovborg, on the other hand, refers to his manuscript as a “child”, he refers to the product of his intellect, hard work and freedom. What Hedda wants so desperately is to be her own woman. And yet she never finds the courage to live as brazenly and as deeply as she acts.  

And what if I’m failing to live brazenly or deeply? Going to work is easy; the commute, switching on the machine, answering questions and even asking them. It’s what is expected. What no one expects us to do is to fight, if we can find a way to fight for the right things in the right way.

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Taste Test

When I get there, Sam is locking up his bike outside Stour Space, where in just under a year we’ll have our wedding. It’s an art gallery and a community space that hosts evening yoga sessions and midweek, midday ping pong aimed at freelancers. We like it mainly for two reasons: it’s really close to where we live, in a cool part of London, still rough around the edges; and it has an element of surprise.

We knock loudly on the side door and hope we’re heard, and when we gain entry we’re introduced to the chef, Michel. He is French, lean and quietly amicable. Standing in the Counter Cafe the sun is slowly descending behind him, threatening to wipe out the views of progressing construction across the canal. He points to the only table that has been laid out for diners, and we drop our backpacks and our bike helmets and very nearly collapse into the respective seats. House white is promptly offered up; we are tonight’s drinking crowd.

Have you ever planned a wedding? We haven’t, not yet. Being of a certain age though, we have a growing number of friends who have. “How far are you?” sings the chorus, and– having already picked the venue and bought my dress— I confidently reply, “Quite far.” But I know that if we pull this thing off successfully it will most likely be due to the international team of doctors, lawyers, film directors, project managers, poets, architects, and accountants we’ve assembled to help. They call it a wedding party, but I hate the Shakespearean fantasy of the phrase, a mocking nod to the theatrical, sometimes tragic. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a stretch to use the oft misaligned “hashtag squad goals”.

When the caterer, Hugues (also French, but more emphatically amicable), arrives he approaches to say hello. Momentarily disappearing he returns with three additional bottles of wine, this time red, each referred to in terms of character and robustness that in our uncouthness Sam and I can’t quite associate with a taste. We are left alone with four bottles of wine, enough food for six, and a pen and paper with which to jot down our thoughts. Hugues returns to very little, just a splattered scrap of paper that reads in lazy scrawl: Yes, we like this.

Following a debrief with Michel and Hugues, Michel leaves for the night, and, pouring himself a glass of red (full of character, robust) Hugues tells us about managing the Counter Cafe of Stour Space. We love Hackney Wick; the fairy lit bars and restaurants here, the canal, the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park– my favourite of London’s outdoor spaces. “We’ve been here for five years,” he says, “but it’s changing. Everywhere is being bought up, smaller places aren’t surviving.” And the arrival of West Ham? “The fans have not affected us, really. There have been one or two incidences elsewhere; a lot of the bars have simply banned colours.” There is a game on tonight, immediately across the canal from us. Every so often we hear a distant roar, but it is negligible.

Having now consumed a large ratio of the wine, I stand up and grab my helmet, as does Sam. Hugues winces. “I didn’t know you were cycling! I wouldn’t have let you drink so much!” I slur something that I intend as a farewell. Confident about our anti-destination wedding on the Hackney Riviera, we stumble to our bikes and zig zag home.

Repeat After Me

We’re two and a half miles into a run when I feel it. “I’m going to stop and walk,” I say to Sam, who is running twelve miles today. We’re in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park along one of our usual routes, but I’ve been injured for three weeks so I’m only just remembering that the wildflowers have turned brown.

For those few miles I am in front of Sam, so cycling must be keeping my cardiovascular fitness at an ok level. It’s also keeping me bolshy: “I feel great!” I brag, running backwards to face him. He doesn’t mind. We get on so well because he ignores all the terrible aspects of my personality.

Initially I had thought that weeks of rest would make me a bit loopy, but actually it’s making me more sensible. I’ve taken off my FitBit (What is wrong?!, Thom had Whatsapped me on the first day as I slid down the weekly step count leaderboard), have added toning and flexibility exercises to my routine, and, having dropped the assumption that I can just eat anything, have actually lost four pounds.

I have been a runner now for nearly half my life. “What do you think about when you run?” asks everyone who has never tried. “Don’t you get bored?” But the secret is that running provides context for things that would otherwise be nonsensical: meeting at 6am every day in every type of weather for five miles and a tell-all with Pat and Vanessa; having a working dog with a quick-dry utility coat and no snooze button; earning medals just for taking part even as a bill-paying, newspaper-reading adult.

Running, like life, is largely repetition, and if you take it too seriously of course it’s difficult to say what the point is.

In 2013 the indie band The National played their song ‘Sorrow’ for 6 hours in a collaboration with the artist Ragnar Kjartansson. At Kjartansson’s exhibition at the Barbican in July, we wandered into a room where the recording of this event, in a piece titled ‘A Lot of Sorrow’, was playing in its entirety. We must have entered somewhere halfway through, because frontman Matt Berninger, although still steadily composed, is visibly tiring. We watched as two techies with trays of food enter stage left to offer burgers and fries to each band member; Berninger refuses but Bryan Devendorf eagerly accepts and crouches behind his drum kit to scarf down the offering.

Rather than stall the piece, this interruption adds to it. The band works to support one another and keep themselves interested, adding and subtracting various elements at various interludes, sometimes as a result of energy (guitarist Bryce Dessner’s nervousness, for example) and sometimes a result simply of time. But ultimately what the band creates is mindfully complex; many miles away from the reduction one might expect.

Why would anyone, in the first place, agree to perform a song on repeat for six hours? For the same reason anyone would take up long distance running.

We have to do something, to find out why we do anything.

Tiny Dancer

Ira Glass is diminutive, so small I can squeeze him between my thumb and my forefinger. His face has become entirely his trademark glasses. “Sorry about the seats,” I whisper to Sam. We’re in the very last row of the Royal Festival Hall, which seats 2,500. The show begins in darkness and with words, as a male and a female voice discuss whether to begin with talk or dance. Talk has obviously won out, following, it seems, a trend begun in ancient texts with ‘Let there be light.’ And then there is light; mid-stage sits a tiny red velvet curtain, self-suspended within an arch; show business made a prop within the actual thing.

We love proximity to show business– even nosebleed proximity– and we’ve come to see what sort this is, what Ira Glass has cooked up with Monica Bill Barnes, who also directed and choreographed, and Anna Bass in “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host”. Sam and I are big fans of Glass’s radio show, This American Life, which is a major reason we have so many internet radios in our one-bedroom flat.

“You’re very English,” Sam will say to me, thick with surprise, every so often. I think he does it just to elicit my response, preordained: “Because I am!” I have an American passport, a British one, and an accent that’s somewhere in between (“Are you from Singapore?” I was once asked in a meeting, “It’s just that you sound… international.”) I’ve spent half my life in the US and I still don’t understand Stand Your Ground laws, American football or what “quarter of” means when telling time, but then there are a heap of American things that make perfect sense: peanut butter, and The New Yorker, and NPR.

I’ll meet you at Yo! Sushi, Sam WhatsApps me before the show. We’re both cycling to the South Bank, albeit from opposite directions. When I get there Sam already has a seat at the counter, and a beer. “There was a family on the Cycle Superhighway,” he says, exasperated. “A four year-old in rush hour traffic! No one could get by!”

Towards the end of the show, Glass turns his attention to marriage. “You take their hand and walk towards a future you hope is just going to appear out of the mist,” he says, describing the decision to spend the rest of your life with one person, when you don’t know what the rest of your life is going to be. Recordings of Alain de Botton on the subject follow, filling the theatre with tips like ‘lower your expectations,’ or, that’s how we remember it. “It’s ok,” I say later, as we stalk around the flat, trying to sneak up on one another, which culminates in Sam striking an elaborate pose and my pretending to commit his likeness to canvas, “I don’t have expectations anyway.”

Visiting “The Visitors”

“Once again I fall into my feminine ways.”

“Once again I fall into my feminine ways.”

So Ragnar Kjartansson sings, on repeat, while strumming a guitar in a bathtub. Recently I read of the Icelandic performance artist in the New Yorker, which said of him: “Exuberance is Kjartansson’s default mode, in directing as in life.” And so, when I heard he had an exhibition at the Barbican I decided we must go. After all, performance art is not about knowledge, or even story. It’s about experience.

The nine-screen installation “The Visitors” is in a room through a black curtain. A plaque outside describes briefly what you’re about to enter into, but there’s really no way of knowing until you do. People seem to go in but not return. It is Sam, Amy, and myself, and we collect one another before making this seemingly permanent transition. On the other side, eight other performers play different instruments in different rooms of a single house (Rokeby Farm in upstate New York), and over the course of the sixty-four minute running time, they join in with and repeat the artist’s refrain, an ABBA lyric, their voices rising and falling as they give way to melancholy, reflection, bliss.

Together they’re mesmerizing, more so than any art I’ve ever seen, and while there’s a painting-like element there’s also engaging intensity; fine art for the Netflix crowd.

The piece culminates in clamour and rollicking as the nine musicians, having left their posts, collect the friends who have been porch-bound for the duration (just before, an elderly gentleman has aroused himself from a nap and fired off a small cannon), and dance, now singing at the top of their lungs, to the very edge of what we can see. It’s joyous, and then a little lonely being left behind. Are they the visitors, or are we?

When we finally emerge from the room, we’re silent for a moment. “I think I need a little time to assimilate,” Amy says. We all agree, and after wandering around the rest of the exhibit, convene outside by the lake with Icelandic pale ales.