Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd, who edited Attitude, the UK’s best selling magazine, for many years and is the writer of the play Blowing Whistles, was released in June of this year. It is published by Bantam Press. I read the book during the summer and was seriously impressed. Straight Jacket is part memoir and part polemic. It is an incredibly well-researched book which looks at why many in the gay community often struggle with mental illness, addictions and have a higher propensity to attempt or commit suicide. Todd’s approach is evidence-based and he uses statistics from a wide range of sources and in-depth interviews to support his argument. He is also brave enough to share a very honest and personal account of growing up gay which, for him, was accompanied with high levels of anxiety, low-self esteem and problematic alcohol use.
Straight Jacket is similar in scope to The Velvet Rage written by psychotherapist Alan Downs. Concepts such as ‘toxic shame’, cultural and internalised homophobia, and the path to a more authentic and happy self, are all dealt with here. But Straight Jacket, published only ten years later, goes even further in exploring and addressing some of the issues that concern the gay community today. Chem-sex addiction is one such issue. It has already been dealt with in hard-hitting documentary films such as Chemsex, various magazine articles, both in the mainstream media and gay press, and plays such as Five Guys Chilling. (Indeed I saw Chemsex at the ICA when it first opened. The Q&A session was chaired by Matthew Todd.) The issue is approached in Straight Jacket, as are many of the other issues, in a comprehensive and succinct way. Doctors, health care professionals and key figures in the gay community, including David Stuart, who runs 56 Dean Street sexual-health clinic in Soho, are interviewed and quoted. Unfortunately for the men involved, tragic stories concerning personal use of crystal meth, GHB and methadrone in a sexual context are also to be found in this part of the book.
The devastating consequences of growing up gay in a culture which is both covertly and overtly homophobic are laid bare in Straight Jacket. Alcohol and drug abuse, body image issues, homophobic bullying, hypersexuality or ‘sexual anorexia’, rising HIV infection rates, higher suicide and attempted suicide rates, compared with the general population, are all examined with intellectual rigor and compassion. I was particularly interested in how Todd would cover the issue of homophobic bullying in schools, having been a school teacher myself. The relevant chapter includes the story of Anthony whose body was found two months after he hanged himself. Anthony was the victim of homophobic bullying at school and via social media.
Personally, I am aware that some schools are beginning to tackle the problem but not nearly enough is being done. ‘Gay’ is still often used as a term of abuse in the playground and teachers who attempt to address homophobia in schools are not always given a smooth ride. When I introduced the book Jenny Lives with Martin and Eric in a school in the London borough of Tower Hamlets in an effort to confront the use of homophobic language, I was accused by the deputy head of pushing the gay rights agenda.
One of the strengths of Straight Jacket is that it will also appeal to adolescents and young adults who identify as LGBTQ. Key concepts are explained clearly and succinctly and historical overviews are often given. And despite the often traumatic territory Straight Jacket covers, there is also much hope. And it is hope that is grounded in practical advice on how to move towards a greater sense of authentic self-hood. My one criticism of this latter part of the book would be that an abstinence-based approach to addiction is perhaps recommended to the detriment of other approaches. Although I do understand where Todd is coming from. Alcohol Anonymous (A.A), Narcotics Anonymous (N.A) and Crystal Meth Anonymous (CMA) are all programmes that are free, inclusive and, for those who stick to the programme, often highly successful.
Straight Jacket is an incredibly important contribution to the discourse on homophobia and the mental, emotional and physical well-being of members of the LGBT community. It is a book which is written with honesty and love. I would recommend this book to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, who may be affected in some way, or know someone who may be affected by some of the issues dealt with. Straight Jacket is a wake-up call to the gay community and a rallying cry for us all.
Matthew Todd will be reading at Paul Burston’s literary salon Polari on 25th November.
I first encountered Paul Burston’s work while I was studying English and Drama at university. His debut novel, Shameless, which, as an undergraduate, I devoured in a few sittings, is a feisty and funny yet tender romp of a read centred on one man’s search for happiness after his boyfriend runs off with a prostitute. It was a welcome relief from some of the dry and dreary classics I had to read for the English literature component of my degree! In addition to editing short story anthologies and writing works of non-fiction, Burston then went on to write four more novels including his latest offering, The Black Path, published by Accent Press, and on general release from 15th September.
The Black Path is a departure from Burston’s previous novels, which are all essentially comedies. His fifth novel is a dark psychological thriller which is in the vein of the ‘domestic noir’ genre. The narrative is centred around two protagonists, Helen and Owen. At the beginning of the novel, Owen, a Lance Corporal in the British army, has gone to fight in Afghanistan and left his wife, Helen, to fend for herself in their hometown of Bridgend, which, at some points in the novel resembles something of a war zone itself! Helen is forced to face her fears and discovers that the two heroes in her life are not the people she thought they were. This theme is explored in Burston’s other novels but it is here that it is given a treatment that is both chilling and, at times, creepy. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of the novel is the way that Burston withholds or reveals information just at the right time. This makes for compelling reading as the twist and turns of the plot lead the reader inexorably towards a terrifying yet satisfying end. Not only is this all great storytelling but the scenes in the novel set in Afghanistan are testament to the eye for detail and the research Burston has undertaken in this area.
Burston has created characters that one feels emotionally invested in. We are sympathetic to the plights of both Helen and Owen as well as some of the minor characters and we champion their cause. Similarly, we cannot help but find ourselves strongly pitted against some of the antagonists in the piece, including Jackson, a homophobic soldier and violent husband.The characters in The Black Path are clearly defined yet nuanced and have depth. Similarly, the shift in character viewpoint throughout the novel is expertly handled. The writing style is clear and concise. (There is no excess fat in Burston’s prose.) And although one desperately wants to find the answers to some of the questions posed in the novel, one of its strengths are the many moving and emotional scenes that have a almost filmic quality. The Black Path kicks a punch, partly because it is both plot AND character driven. And at the end of the journey, we find both Helen and Owen are irrevocably changed as they face their fears and their relationship to themselves and each other.
I would wholeheartedly recommend The Black Path to anyone wishing to read a gripping psychological thriller with characters you really care about. The Black Path has already been longlisted for The Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker Prize’ and is out on general release in all good bookshops from 15th September.
‘I can see angels standing around you.
They shimmer like mirrors in Summer.
But you don’t know it.’ (‘Among Angels’, Kate Bush)
I have decided not to post anymore excerpts from my forthcoming memoir for the foreseeable future. There are several reasons for this, including the fact that each excerpt is just a first draft which will require judicious editing. In addition, I feel that by posting too many passages, I’m just giving too much away too soon! However, I appreciate everyone’s interest, and will instead be updating viewers to this website with regular news regarding the general development of my memoir – which will be my third book.
For me, the completion of this book will represent the completion of a particular cycle in my life. And even though Homo Jihad and Pharmakeia are vastly different, both in style and content, I think when read in conjunction with my memoir, many will consider them, in some respects, to form a trilogy. At the heart of both novels and the current memoir is a conflict or battle between the forces of light and dark, good and evil. This may sound a tad old-fashioned to some but being human does not allow one to escape the ethical/moral dimension of life. And neither does being a writer. As Susan Sontag, American writer, film-maker and political activist, writes, ‘Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and plays as a moral agent…This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense.’
So far, the word count of the memoir stands at over 64,000 words ( 200+ pages). Both Homo Jihad and Pharmakeia came in at between around 70,000 and 80,000 words in total so I definitely feel I am on the home straight! For me, this means, by hook or crook, it will be published. And hopefully sooner rather than later. I am aware that it was a good five years between my debut novel and Pharmakeia being published. But hey, it was not always easy to balance working full-time with my passion for writing.
So what’s new? Well, the working title is evolving. I had previously called it ‘Love’ and then inclined towards a title that included the word ‘metanoia’. What’s with all the foreign words in the titles of my books, I hear you ask. (Jihad, Pharmakeia, metanoia) Living in London, I have always been open to different languages and cultures. And sometimes, a word in another language just clinches it in a way that a similar word in one’s home language does not. ‘Metanoia’ is a wonderfully positive word. It means ‘change in one’s way of life resulting from penitence or spiritual conversion’. Having said all this, it’s quite possible this working title may develop or change in the future. I worked through several working titles when writing both Homo Jihad and Pharmakeia. In previous incarnations, Pharmakeia was called Notoriety, Human Demon,and The Butterfly Net. And I do remember Homo Jihad was initially called The Shield For Seven Angels. (Far too fantasy genre!) But still – for me, a working title is an interesting concept, in part because it guides the work for a certain period of time. It may or may not end up as the final title of the published book.’Love’, as you can imagine, has been an incredibly inspiring working title and has guided and reminded me to write from the heart. This has been invaluable, in part because I am writing about a number of personally traumatic events in the memoir. But in the process, I have discovered a greater compassion for myself and others.
What else is new? Apart from making real headway with the forward thrust of the main narrative, I have also attended to some restructuring. Without giving too much away, I had a mystical/spiritual experience over ten years ago which has always stayed with me. Originally I had described this experience about a third of the way into the memoir. However, that quiet intuitive voice, which we all have if only we would listen to it (!), advised that it would be better right at the beginning of the memoir. So this is how, at present, my memoir opens. And I feel the memoir, as a whole, is so much better for it. Without going into too much detail, it frames the whole work beautifully and honours this sacred experience.
Reflecting on this period in my life and this particular experience has made me reflect on the nature of ESP experiences in general and how they are often perceived by others. It has taken me some time to accept and honour those times in my life where I have perceived and experienced a reality that transcended this one. And I am talking about intoxicant-free extra-sensory perception and experience. Some of these experiences are related to the passing of people close to me. Some experiences have served to warn and protect me from the negativity and ill will of others. Other experiences have served to protect me from myself. I’m not sure why these ESP experiences happen to me but I do know that if I ignore or discount such experiences, I do so at my peril.
I think psychic ability and a heightened intuitive sense can manifest to different degrees and in different ways for many people. Some people may be lucid dreamers, others may experience angelic visitations, visions, or sense the presence of people who have died. In the past, I have felt wary about sharing these experiences with certain people. Many people’s world view is defined strictly according to the perameters of science and what their five senses tell them. In Heaven and Hell, Swedenborg, an eighteenth century Norwegian visionary and Christian mystic writes:
‘Further, the body’s visual organ, the eye, is so crude that as everyone knows, it does not even see the smaller elements of nature without a lens, much less things that are above the sphere of nature, as are all the realities of the spiritual world.’ (76)
I guess you could say that researching Swedenborgian ideas about the spiritual world and the afterlife has influenced my memoir. So too have Buddhist ideas, including the Three Jewels and maps of the afterlife chronicled in texts such as The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. But because many Swedenborgian ideas resonate with my own intuitive take on things, it feels like I’m rediscovering what I already know. He was a Christian reformist and often very critical of mainstream Christianity. He was also very inclusive of other world faiths. He believed that Heaven and Hell were states of mind. That Hell was a deep-rooted opposition to love and that all angels were once people. I leave you with the sublime Among Angels by Kate Bush.
‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.’ Pablo Picasso.
As a writer and someone who is training to be an actor, I value creativity. I generally see its bright side and think it can bring a sense of personal fulfilment, improved mental health and an experience of ‘free-flow’ where one is in a focussed yet relaxed state of being. I feel this particularly when I am acting and in communion the with other actors and the audience. I feel fully alive.
According to Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs, creativity is up there at the top of that pyramid and is a path to self-actualization. Julia Cameron, author of The Artists Way would go so far as to see creativity as divine. ‘Creativity is God energy, flowing through us, shaped by us, like light flowing through a crystal prism.’ A little hippy for my taste but I get where she’s coming from! And I think, generally, as a society, we are enchanted by creativity . For many people, creativity is a new way of finding solace in an imperfect world in which religion no longer offers such conditions. (Gammel 1946 The Twilight of Painting)
However, I have on occasion wondered whether there is a dark side to creativity. For myself, I recognise the potential for workaholicism and perfectionism when it comes to my own creative pursuits. But when one is intrinsically motivated and rewarded in creative endeavour it is difficult to know where to cut off or when the job is done. Having written my second novel, Pharmakeia, which centres around a creative temptation, I have also reflected on the moral or ethical dimension to art and creativity. I am aware that this is a huge topic but I would like to offer some of my initial thoughts on the dark side of creativity or, as some have called it, ‘negative creativity.’
Creativity and Mental Illness
I think it is fair to say that there is stereotype of the artistic genius. But is there a genuine link between creativity and mental illness? Of course ‘creativity’ is a broad concept but if we were to look at just mental health and the ‘arts’ there is some research to suggest that mental health is lowest in people who work in this field. My experience at the University of Exeter bears this out. The university counselling service was jam-packed with drama students! And of course writers such as Woolf, Plath and Hemingway committed suicide whereas artists such as Van Gogh and Goya or musicians such as Beethoven are reported to have suffered from depression, bipolar disorder and breakdowns. But are such famous artists representative? Or is there something about being an artist and delving into the unconscious and into areas that most people would wisely leave be? Do modern-day artists have shamanic status? And who is to say society in general is sane? As Thomas Szasz says, insanity is a sane reaction to an insane world.
Creativity and Addiction
Of course, many artists are not addicted to either drugs or alcohol. But there may be an increased likelihood of becoming an addict if one has artistic leanings. To a certain extent, artists do have an outsider status. They often challenge the status quo, go beyond convention and offer new ways of seeing things. Drugs similarly offer the user new perceptions and ways of looking at the world, particularly hallucinogenic drugs. They are also illegal which might provide an additional allure to an artist of a rebellious nature. The 27 Club is a term that refers to a number of popular musicians who died at the age of 27, often of drug or alcohol abuse. They include, of course, Jim Morrison, Cobain and Hendrix. But perhaps childhood trauma and/or the pressures of sudden fame also played their part in some of these artists early deaths.
The Creative Personality Type
‘It is the creative person we need most to fear.’ (Graham Greene)
There is some recent research that suggests creative people may be a little more dishonest, arrogant and distrustful than other members of society. One could argue for example that the criminals who committed The Great Train Robbery showed a great sense of ingenuity which is a key component of creativity. And, I guess, if one is on the margins of society, or is challenging the conventions and morality of society, one is more likely to be distrustful. And for some highly creative individuals perhaps there is a sense of going against the crowd which could lead one to become more eccentric, criminal or even pathological. The allure of darkness may even manifest in an attraction to Satanism or occult practices. Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, is well know to have dabbled in Satanism and the occult. When interviewed for a documentary about Mapplethorpe, his former lover, Jack Fritscher, said, ‘Not to put Mapplethorpe down, but Satan, to him, was not this evil monster. Satan was like a convivial playmate.’ Then there are other artists or writers like Ted Hughes, Crowley or H P Lovecraft who were similarly interested in the occult.
My own opinion is that nothing is inherently good or bad, light or dark. It is our intentions or how we use things that matters. Mankind has shown immense ingenuity and creativity in the field of technology. We have the invention of the World Wide Web and nuclear power for example. Then there is the GTS satellite system that has given rise to App culture. But whether this technology is harnessed for the power of good or bad depends on the intention of politicians or other groups in society that would make use of such technology. Whether creativity is used for good or bad also depends on one’s beliefs and core values, Creativity does not exisit in a moral vacuum or beyond a historical or cultural context. I would also argue that artists do have a role to play in exposing injustice, inequality and habitual ways of seeing the world. However, perhaps past creativity can block future creative projects. As an artist, after some time and with a conventional degree of success, perhaps it is easy to fall into the trap of being formulaic and therefore conventional! And perhaps it is also easy to fall into the trap of creating from the ego rather than the Self. There is a lot to be said for getting out of the way of oneself before one creates…
Next week’s blog post will be an update on my forthcoming memoir.
‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give
delight and hurt not.’
On Thursday 30th June I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of The Tempest by William Shakespeare, performed by City Lit Theatre Company. The production was directed by Petina Hapgood, long term director at The City Lit and guest director at the Courtyard and other theatre companies. Assistant director and musical director was Claire Temple. The Tempest is regarded by many as Shakespeare’s last play and is one that holds dear to Aristotle’s unities of time, place and action, the story unfolding on a magical island in real time with one main plot. Many have drawn parallels between Prospero, the magician, and Shakespeare himself. At the end of the play Prospero breaks his magic staff and throws his magic books into the sea. As this is probably Shakespeare’s last play, it may or may not signify the end of Shakespeare’s own career as a playwright.
It was the perfect antidote to the Brexit Blues, if not somewhat surreal as I had trod those very boards myself only a week ago as the character of Paul/Picasso in Jason Riddington’s production of Saltimbanques. But I knew I was in for a real treat before the play had even started as I took my seat and heard a cacophony of animal noises and witnessed animal-like movement and interaction from the company of players already on stage. It was not long before I, along with the other members of the audience, were transported to that pivotal scene on board the ship that is battling against the elements. Working as an ensemble, the actors created the shipwreck scene with just a piece of rope and carefully choreographed physical movement. A truly believable illusion and theatre at its best!
One of the strengths of the piece for me was the inclusion of dance, ritualistic movement, song and original music throughout the play. These were no mere interludes. This is a play about magic and illusion, and the fact that all these elements were interwoven so strongly both charmed and enchanted. The use of stagecraft was another strength, with characters appearing in amongst the audience and at one point, from the entrance to the theatre itself.
On the whole, the performances were strong and engaging. This particular production has taken a fresh approach to casting as both the lead, Prospero (aka Prospera) Caliban, and other traditional male parts are played by female cast members. And why not? I think it’s so important to reinvent the classics lest they become museum pieces! Prospera, the magician and duchess, who had been treacherously usurped from her rightful position in
Milan, was played by esteemed actress Robyn Moore. Robyn has played numerous roles on both TV and theatre and did not disappoint in this production where she gave an emotionally truthful and nuanced performance as Prospera. Ms Moore brought out the multifaceted aspects of her character. You saw, in turn, the protective mother, the vengeful duchess and the magician enraptured by the secret arts. But there was no doubt in my mind that she was a benevolent force. There was also something of the pagan about her costume, with it’s pheasant feathers and rustic colours and patterns. And the relationship between her and Ariel, the fairy spirit, was a delight to behold. There was a real intimate connection between the two even though Ariel really is her slave and does her bidding.
Raymond Charles’ performance as Ariel was energetic and often electrifying. Both physically and vocally, his performance reflected his otherworldy, supernatural status, and he got the balance between, in part, enjoying doing Prospera’s bidding and serving her, yet also yearning for his own freedom, spot on. Scarlett Barrett gave an emotionally engaging performance as Prospera’s daughter, Miranda, and Zoe Bond drew pathos and delight in equal measure in her portrayal of Caliban. It was good to see both Emma Wilkinson-Wright, as the usurping and traitorous Antonia, and Daniel Paul as the equally traitorous Sebastian, both of whom had appeared in Vernon Thomson’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings in December last year. Vittorio Parri cut a very dashing figure as Ferdinand and his use of comic timing was used to great effect. Well done too to all cast members and to Cynon Lewis who was excellent as Francisco and the Boatswain.
The Tempest is on at The John Lyon theatre, City Lit in Holborn from 30th June until 2nd June and is then transferring to St. Giles-In-The-Fields Church from 5th July until 9th July. Tickets are available from Eventbrite. (Click the link)
This short film, ‘Lippy’, produced by ‘The Flying Bull’ theatre company, centres around the character of a homeless person. The screenplay was written by Timothy Graves and directed by Penelope Maynard. Director of Photography and Editor, Giles Webb, Directing Consultant and Acting coach, Robyn Moore. Music by Airacuda.The cast are as follows: Timothy Graves (The Professor), Eva Mashtaler (The Girl), Karim Jabri (The Boyfriend), Sue Ruddick (The Kind Woman).
The film was shot in Holborn and Covent Garden in central London and focusses on the issues of homelessness and environmentalism although the short piece is character driven. Part of the brief was that the film be no longer than 5 mins long and that it could be shot not far from The City Lit Institute where all five actors of ‘The Flying Bull’ are studying for a professional diploma in Acting. On the actual day of filming we were upstaged rather by an actual homeless guy, James, who initially would not move from where we wanted to film. However, it was not long before we persuaded James to join in and take part in some of the filming which he thoroughly enjoyed.
In writing the screenplay, I was inspired by a scene in the Mike Leigh play ‘Career Girls’, when the two female characters, many years later, accidentally bump into a friend and flatmate from university. Only the friend, who had suffered from some mental health issues at university, is now homeless on the streets of London. In ‘Lippy’, it is one of the professor’s students that recognises the now homeless professor. The flashback scene, set at Manchester university, is necessary to highlight how drastically both the professor of botany and the student’s lives have changed.
I hope you enjoy ‘Lippy’. It’s out first short film and we certainly had fun making it!
I have decided to dedicate this week’s blog post to the terror attack and hate crime that took place at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in the early hours of Sunday morning. So far 49 people are reported to have been killed and a further 53 as injured. I’m sure I share your sentiments when I say my thoughts are with the deceased, the injured, and their friends, families and partners.
It was a deliberate act of hate and homophobia targeted against the LGBT community by an American-born citizen, Omar Mateen, who, at the time of writing, and according to the FBI, had links to Islamist jihadi groups.There has been a lot said, in response to the attack, about love, particularly in social media – all in good faith. But just like the rainbow that is a symbol that represents the gay community across the world, ‘love’ itself is made of a spectrum of colours. And one of these colours has nothing to do with the warm, fuzzy feeling one might feel snuggled up with one’s beloved. This particular colour is about standing up against injustice, bigoty and hatred. It is this aspect of love which is motivating me to write this article. And indeed this love which inspired me to write my first novel, Homo Jihad. Sadly, it is this aspect of love which many in the LGBT community are only too familiar with, having battled against homophobia and internalised homophobia whilst growing up in a world where a large section of straight humanity still views us as disgusting, perverted and unnatural. (The Velvet Rage is an excellent book, written by an American psychotherapist which looks at the issue of toxic shame which many gay men experience as young boys.)
The individual who perpetrated this act of violence was clearly motivated by his hatred of the LGBT community. In other words he was homophobic. It has also been widely reported in the media that his father noted his son’s disgust on seeing two men kissing in Florida. Today the father reportedly said it was up to God to punish gay people. Surely, this is what is truly disgusting and offensive. Not two men holding hands or kissing in the street. Not gay people having fun in a nightclub.
But the tentacles of this hatred for LGBT people go deep. Hundreds, if not thousands of years deep. There is, in my opinion, a relationship between the Abrahamic faiths which originate in the Middle East, and homophobia. St. Paul, Leviticus, certain hadiths from the Koran etc. The passages are well known and quite repugnant so I won’t reproduce them here. But it is religious bigotry and homophobia justified in the name of God or Allah or some ‘sacred’ text or other that needs to be challenged. Humanity needs to evolve! In his excellent article for The Spectator, Homophobia is now met with the same silence given anti-Semitism, Nick Cohen writes:
‘Religions, to use Dawkinesque language, are pre-scientific memes, and their DNA carries the hatred and blood-lusts of their time. Their authority has to be destroyed, so that they can no longer authorise murder.’
I sympathise with the above sentiment as a lot of what is written in these religious texts is defined by the culture, history and bigotry of their time. However, I still regard the essence of Christ’s teachings as a force of good in the world. And I believe Buddhism as a religion/philosophy is a time honoured tradition which has compassion and wisdom at its heart. I would not recommend throwing the baby out with the bath water! But religious extremism and homophobia need to be confronted whenever and wherever we encounter them. Which is why I feel Peter Tatchell’s response to the attack merits praise:
‘There is no room for the complacent and naïve belief the Islamist fanatics will confine their killings of gay people to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.’
Islamism as a political, fascistic ideology exists. The first step in combating this ideology is naming it. Not pretending it does not exist. Omar Mateen was a homophobe AND an Islamist who sympathised with Jihadi groups. However, some people seem to have a problem discerning between Islamism and Islam and in their ignorance and Islamophobia play directly into the hands of both Donald Trump and Isis. In the words of Peter Tatachell:
‘We must resist those who want to use this slaughter to demonise and scapegoat the Muslim community.’
We have all seen the violent, murderous face of homophobia in the devastation and loss of life caused in Orlando but I have also been shocked by the subtle and not so subtle display of homophobia in some of the media coverage of the attack. The Daily Wail didn’t even cover the worst attack on LGBT people since the Second World War on its front page. And I can only applaud The Guardian journalist, Owen Jones, for walking out of a Sky News interview. Julia Hartley Brewer, reporter for The Telegraph, and its presenter continued to downplay the fact that The Pulse nightclub in Orlanda was an LGBT venue until Jones, quite rightly, walked out. Do Jewish sites that are deliberate targets of terrorism get questioned on their basis of how Jewish they are? The fact that homophobia here in the West is still not recognised for what it is, is clearly part of the problem.
The events in Orlando and certain media coverage of the events today have triggered certain personal experiences of homophobia. I remember being sent to Coventry by everyone on campus after I had naively come out to my room mate in the first week at Exeter University. The Headteacher of a primary school in Poplar, East London demanding to know why I had a book entitled ‘Jenny lives with Martin and Eric’ in my classroom. (It was in fact to combat homophobic bullying) I remember her words quite clearly. ‘I’m a divorced woman. I don’t go shoving that down everyone’s throat.’ She took the book I had bought with my own money and never gave it back. The time I had comforted a boyfriend on a bench in the street. He was feeling ill and we were subjected to homophobic verbal abuse. In many ways I have been lucky. I haven’t been beaten up or kicked out of my home or sent to prison or executed for my sexual orientation. In many parts of the world this still happens. Doubtless, some bigots would think this article is shoving my gay rights agenda down their throat.
I leave you with a photo of a packed Old Compton Street in Soho, where a vigil to commemorate the victims of the Orlando attack took place this evening. You can see the Admiral Duncan pub, where seventeen years ago, three people lost their lives and dozens more were injured when a Neo-Nazi sympathiser detonated a nail bomb. We are ‘God’s gift of infinite variety in human love.’ We are the LGBT community.
I have chosen to devote this week’s blog post to what will be the UK’s premiere of Saltimbanques. As many of you will know, as well as being a writer, I have also undertaken a professional actor training and have just completed my first year at City Lit drama school. (This is not such a divergent route as it may initially appear as I have a degree in Drama from Exeter University and used to teach Drama in London secondary schools back in the day!) Our end of year production will be Jim Knable’s play Saltimbanques, directed by Jason Riddington and performed at the John Lyon’s theatre at City Lit, in Holborn, central London on Thursday 23rd June and Saturday 25th June at 7.30 pm. There will also be an additional matinee performance on Saturday at 2.30pm.
The play is named after Picasso’s painting, Saltimbanques, which depicts six circus performers in a desolate landscape. For the poet, Rilke, Saltimbanques suggests ‘human activity.. always travelling and with no fixed abode, they are even a shade more fleeting than the rest of us, whose fleetingness was lamented.’ For Rilke, the painting encapsulates the ultimate loneliness and isolation of Man.’ Existentialist stuff indeed!
Saltimbanques, the play, is about art, death, fantasy and the power of the imagination. I play the character of Paul, an artist, who becomes convinced that he is possessed by the spirit of Pablo Picasso. (I have found Francoise Gilot’s memoir, Life with Picasso, particularly enlightening.) I also personally find it somewhat uncanny that I am actually playing a character who believes he is possessed since my second novel, Pharmakeia, deals with just this – albeit demonic rather than artistic possession. Both Saltimbanques and Pharmakeia also concern themselves with the potentially dark nature of art, creativity and fantasy. I guess a Jungian devotee would call these apparent coincidences ‘synchronicity’
Mommy, played by Penelope Maynard, convinces me, Paul, that I am possessed by the spirit of Pablo Picasso.
The plot centres around James’ and Louise’s eccentric artist mother who tells them they are Picasso’s illegitimate twins. James runs from his sadistic sculptress girlfriend and Louise follows him to their mother’s cabin in the woods, where the ghosts of their very different pasts haunt them in the form of memories of love gone wrong, parenting gone crazy, and in the flesh of Mommy’s former student, Paul (played by yours truly) who is convinced he is the reincarnation of Picasso himself.
James, played Karim Jabri with Eva Mashtaler as his sister, Louise, discussing their traumatic childhood.
Sue Ruddick, as James’ sadistic sculptress girlfriend, engages in a little light role-play.
We have been in rehearsals for the last six weeks and it has been a pleasure to have been directed by Jason Riddington. We have rehearsed to the music of ‘Massive Attack’ and certain tracks from the sound track of the movie, ’21 Grams’. (This music will accompany the action of the play during each performance.) Rather than being ‘blocked’ in a heavy-handed fashion, we have been encouraged to explore character and relationship dynamics in an organic and actor-centred way. (Jason Riddington is also an actor and will appear in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow at The Mill theatre in Sonning from July 7th.)
I have learnt so much as an actor from working with Jason Riddington. Everything from his entertaining theatrical anecdotes to his belief in the actor as an alchemist or magician in communion with the audience. But for this magical alchemical formula to work – the actor needs to tread the knife edge. It has to cost us emotionally. I have personally invested a lot emotionally in the role, and in addition have grappled with getting to grips with the Spanish accent and the physical and vocal demands of transforming into a character who becomes increasingly psychotic. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Acting was my first love. And it feels amazing to come home, at long last.
Saltimbanques will be performed at the John Lyon theatre, City Lit, Holborn on Thursday 23rd June and Saturday 25th June. The actors involved have also formed a theatre company, The Flying Bull, and are hoping to transfer the play to a London theatre later in the summer. Tickets cost £9 and can be purchased online from Eventbrite.
Next Friday’s blog post will look at the potentially dark side of creativity.
Last week I went with a friend to The Lyric theatre in Hammersmith to see 4.48 Psychosis the Opera, by Philip Venables – an adaptation of Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis. For those who may not be familiar with Kane’s play, it is about a character/characters who suffers/suffer from clinical depression. (There are no stage directions or characters listed) Suicide, self-harm and death are big themes in the play. But so is love – and the loss of it.
I first saw 4.48 Psychosis when it premiered at The Royal Court theatre shortly after Sarah’s death. I knew Sarah during the sixth form at school and would hang out with her in a small circle of friends, many of whom now identify as gay or lesbian. We were involved in numerous school plays together of which I have many fond memories. I then moved to Exeter to study Drama at Exeter University and a year later Sarah went to Bristol University. Some years later, we both ended up living in Brixton. And this was the last place where we met up, just the two of us, one evening in a pub. I remember the evening clearly – Sarah’s warmth and sharp wit and her genuine interest in my experience of Buddhist meditation. It was a shock when a mutual friend phoned to tell me Sarah had killed herself. And when I saw 4.48 Psychosis at The Royal Court in 2000, in the year following Sarah’s funeral, of course, it was very upsetting. In some respects, it did feel like a suicide note. But it was much more than this. It was an incredible piece of writing and the best production of the play I have seen so far.
But to return to 4.48 Psychosis The Opera. It was an all female cast comprising of six singers. Not long into the performance it struck me that Opera is a great medium for Sarah Kane’s play. Opera naturally deals with extreme emotions and experiences – death and the loss of love being two of them. In addition there is a real strong sense of rhythm to the language in the play which naturally lends itself to some kind of musical rendition.There are also references to rhythm and singing in the actual text:
‘I sing without hope on the boundary.’
‘I shall hang myself to the sound of my lover’s breathing.’
And the actual text (or most of it) from Kane’s play is projected above the stage and also onto the white walls of the set. I thought this worked particularly well, in part because Kane’s writing, which fluctuates between naturalistic and heightened poetic expression, is so exquisite and carefully crafted. As a writer, having the text to read throughout the play, made me realise yet again what a multiplicity of voices there are in 4.48 Psychosis. And how, in this regard it is very postmodern. The text includes Biblical references, lists concerning medication, lists of numbers, poetic passages, expanded definitions of words etc. There are also echoes from classical texts such as T S Eliot’s The Wasteland.
The musicians from the orchestra were positioned above the stage which inverted the usual convention and was all the more effective and powerful for it. Drums, hammers, and even a saw cutting through wood, served to reinforce the despair and anguish which are at the heart of the play. At other times, the music served to highlight the ineffectual and at times damaging role that the psychiatric system itself plays in mental illness. But I think the most disturbing music in the piece was the intermittent sound of what sounded like piped supermarket/elevator music. This was quite ‘Brechtian’ in the sense that it distanced you intermittently from the emotional content of the play.
I think it’s important that a play like 4.48 Psychosis, in the right hands, is adapted. (It takes a brave soul and artist to reveal/shine the light on a dark and difficult aspect of what it means to be human.) Kane herself said that she didn’t want any of her plays to become museum pieces. 4.48 Psychosis the Opera remained true to the essence of the play but came to it from a highly creative and interesting angle.
I leave you with two short extracts from the play which convey why, for me, this is a play just as much about love, or the loss of love:
‘Cut out my tongue
tear out my hair
cut off my limbs but leave me my love
I would rather have lost my legs
pulled out my teeth
gouged out my eyes
than lost my love.’
‘It is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind.’