January 2016. Reading an excerpt from my new novel Pharmakeia, at Paul Burston’s literary salon ‘Polari’ at The Southbank Centre.
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.
The Role of Drugs/Chems in ‘Pharmakeia’
Pharmakeia is a transgressive tale on many levels. But, these days, is it transgressive to take drugs? In many quarters, they seem so commonplace, particularly on the gay scene. But what is relatively new in the gay community is sexualised drug use. And the specific drugs that ramp up the libido like nothing on earth – crystal meth, GHB and methadrone..
I was lucky enough to go to the opening of the documentary ‘Chemsex’ at the ICA in December. This surely is a wake-up call to the gay community as it follows several very brave gay men and their descent into sexualised drug use and drug addiction. Gay men are shown ‘slamming’ or injecting crystal meth on screen. And, in no way, did I wish to minimise the potential negative effects of some of these harder drugs by referencing them in ‘Pharmakeia’. Indeed, I am aware that many gay men, who, in the past, used other party drugs recreationally, such as ecstasy or cocaine, find themselves completely out of their depth when it comes to drugs like crystal meth/methamphetamine aka ‘Tina’ to those in the know on the gay scene.
However, for my purposes, as a novelist writing this particular story, I decided to make use of the drug crystal meth. (which initially presented some problems as crystal was not that readily available on the streets of London in 1997! – although it had made inroads in The States.) When Mahvand smokes crystal meth at the club Kaos, thereby losing his drug virginity in a full-on way, it represents a further temptation/slide into the dark underworld, which is populated by shady characters such as Daimon Mount-Stuart and the conceptual art collector/dealer, Jean-Baptiste Lebeau-Chevalier.
The use of methamphetamine in the novel also relates directly to the title of the book, ‘Pharmakeia’, which is a Greek word, and appears in the New Testament. It is often translated as ‘the use or administration of drugs’ / ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorceries’. Crystal meth, is purported by some, to have a supernaturally dark side and enable the user to see ‘shadow people’ demons etc. (However, it is also well-known for inducing psychosis and even schizophrenia..) I guess it’s all about perspective!
For my story, I tapped into the sorcery/witchcraft perspective on crystal meth because I was interested in a transgressive narrative which has the theme of temptation at its heart. In the chapter ‘Kaos’, Jean-Baptiste smokes crystal from a glass pipe, and says, ‘I like to think of this pipe as a glass portal to another world.’ He also smokes the drug, as does Mahvand, during their sex magick sessions which culminate in visions for disturbing pieces of conceptual art.
At one point in the writing process, I edited out all drug references to make the ‘magick’/fantast element more real. But then I decided I liked leaving the reader in a state of ambiguity. Is what is happening actually ‘real’ or a drug hallucination? Or a combination of the two? Towards the end of the narrative though, I hope I have given enough textual clues to enable the reader to decide which perspective is ultimately the deciding one!
I think the relationship between drugs and magic is an interesting one. In the chapter set in the nightclub, Kaos, the antagonist, Jean-Baptiste, quips, ‘I like to think that encoded in the very DNA of every drug is some kind of spell or enchantment.’ The Oxford dictionary defines magic as ‘the power of apparently influencing events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.’ In ‘Pharmakeia’, crystal meth is the doorway or portal that allows the supernatural, diabolical demonic entity of Belial to manifest. Another definition of magic/magical, according to the Oxford dictionary, is (that which has) ‘a quality of being beautiful and delightful in a way that seems remote from daily life.’ Again, in ‘Pharmakeia’, drugs (namely crystal meth) are used in sex sessions so that the characters who have consumed them can gain experience that is remote from daily life. Whether the experience can be described as ‘beautiful’ or ‘delightful’ is open to interpretation. I certainly enjoyed writing some of these passages, in part, because I could allow my imagination free reign! This is a passage, towards the end of the novel, when Mahvand and his lover, Jean-Baptiste, have just made love.
‘Mahvand collapsed on top of Jean-Baptiste quite spent, and rested his chin on his lover’s chest, which was splattered Jackson-Pollock like, with jism. He realised the magick was still at work, when JB’s throat was adance with flecks of dark light. Each one exploded in a tiny puff of smoke before giving birth to its very own pair of black, paper-thin wings. A cool breeze snuffed out the remaining candles and Mahvand witnessed a host of black butterflies make their way to the open window and towards a sickle moon in a sky now stained red by the early morning sun.’ (pg 239)
There are many parallels between ‘Pharmakeia’ and my first novel, ‘Homo Jihad’. In both stories, the main character takes drugs. But, unlike Mahvand in ‘Pharmakeia’, who, at the beginning of the narrative, is a drug virgin, David Underwood, in ‘Homo Jihad’ is a seasoned club kid who takes drugs in gay clubs in Vauxhall, London. David’s ‘jihad’ or struggle is to overcome his addiction to recreational drugs and the lifestyle that goes with it. To know whether he does or not, you’ll need to read the book! Suffice it to say the endings to both of my novels are quite different!
My own views on drugs are nuanced and complex. I think, in some shape or form, humans have sought to alter their everyday reality and their perception of it, for thousands of years. Whether it be the shaman in the Amazon ingesting an hallucinogenic drug or Athenian citizens in Greece drinking vast quantities of wine at the festival of Dionysus. Certain hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD can enable the user to experience a sense of their own expanded consciousness – and indeed this particular drug, along with MDMA has been used in psychotherapeutic settings. (Although such drugs don’t come without side effects and can in some circumstances be dangerous)
So, in some respects, the drug experience, and whether it is positive or negative, depends on many factors. These include the context they are taken in, what drug it is, the dose, who you take it with, general state of health etc. However, all pleasurable activities, can easily turn into addictions. The negative side effects can outweigh the perceived benefits. Pleasure can turn to pain. However, I recently read, Johann Hari’s ‘Chasing the Scream’. It is a book about drug ‘addiction’ but has an interesting take on ‘addiction’. Hari argues that the old ‘pharmaceutical’ model of addiction is misleading and erroneous. The pharmaceutical model of addiction would argue that drugs literally hijack your brain and diminish your will and autonomy to such an extent that you are turned into a helpless addict. Narcotics Anonymous may work for many, but it’s premise is built on the pharmaceutical model of addiction.
In short, Hari, whose book I thoroughly recommend, proposes that much drug addiction is due to the life history and quality of life of the ‘addict’. In other words, if you have a satisfying job, partner, good friend, a good standard of living, and grew up in a family where you felt loved, and that you belonged, the chances are, if you do take drugs at some point in your life, you are less likely to become addicted than someone who does not experience these positive conditions. In some respects, you could argue that minority groups in society such as the LGBT community are more prone to issues of addiction because of the underlying conditions of inequality and injustice. Perhaps this is partly why I, as an author of gay fiction, am drawn to write about drugs and the issues surrounding them. All the studies I have read suggest that gay men tend to take more drugs and for a longer of period of time than their heterosexual counterparts. It’s easy, but erroneous to individualise, or even stigmatise groups in society who have been marginalised, criminalised and discriminated against. If the gay community does have a problem with drugs, straight humanity needs to share some of the responsibility for this.
I leave you with a song from the Brit Pop era – Suede’s ‘The Chemistry Between Us’ I hope you enjoyed this post.
Pharmakeia is set in the iconic year of 1997, when Tony Blair came to power with Nu Labour and Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris. The late nineties were when conceptual art really took off in the UK. ‘Sensation’ was held at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1997, exhibiting the contemporary art of Charles Saatchi. Yong British Artist, Damien Hirst, exhibited his shark suspended in formaldehyde solution, entitled ‘The Physical Impossiblity of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’. Another YBA, Tracey Emin, exhibited that infamous tent, ‘Everyone I Have Ever Slept With’, and Marcus Harvey’s ‘Myra’ (a portrait of child murderer Myra Hindley) was also on display.
The penultimate chapter of ‘Pharmakeia’ takes place at White Cube gallery, then situated in Duke Street, St James. It was famous for curating artists with international appeal and YBA artists. This, of course, is where Mahvand exhibits his shocking and blasphemous pieces of work, including a fibreglass statue of Christ being buggered by a shepherd’s crook. It was important that the works of art were transgressive as they were the culmination of Sex Magick practice. (Read the book!) Although there were plenty of transgressive or blasphemous pieces of art at the time, including Andres Serrano’s ‘Piss Christ’ and the Chapman Brothers ‘Fuck Face’.
‘Piss Christ’ by Andres Serrano
In some of these pieces of art, and indeed the pieces of art conceived of between Mahvand and Jean-Baptiste, one could argue that it is the collision between the profane and the sacred that provokes or outrages, depending on one’s sensibilities. One could also argue that it is this artificial division between the profane and the sacred, the body and the spirit which is harmful. After all, if God is not in the bedroom, where is she? Up in the clouds..? Whether the Christian Church is partly responsible for this splitting or simply reinforced it, is a matter for debate..
But to return to ‘Pharmakeia’ and White Cube gallery, I must say what a joy it was to meet up with Sohphie Grieg, then Head of Archives at White Cube, one afternoon. She talked about the vibe of White Cube back in the nineties and showed me numerous photographs of celebs who would visit – The Pet Shop boys, Janet Street-Porter, Jarvis Cocker etc. Some of these have cameos in the White Cube chapter of ‘Pharmakeia’. She made me realise how small the old White Cube was and filled me in with details such as the tradition of drinking bottles of beer, and not champagne, at YBA events!
However some of what happens in that infamous chapter is down to ‘poetic liscence’! The roof to the real White Cube was reached, apparently, via someone’s flat.. I thought this would be a tad too comical, so Mahvand just climbs a few flights of stairs before he reaches the roof.