revew: Alistair McDowall – all of it
all of it/
by Alistair McDowall/
cast Kate O’Flynn/
dir Vicky Featherstone & Sam Pritchard/
lighting des Elliot Griggs/
composer Melanie Wilson/
The Royal Court/
06-17 Jun 2023//
focus and epicentre
There is a single point which can be tens or hundreds of kilometres deep, where the earthquake is born. There, the crust of our planet slips. This is the ‘focus’, the buried source, the locus from which all the force is released. The epicentre is the point on the surface directly above: a reflection, a metaphor translated onto the plane most relevant to us. How reassuring, the skin of the Earth can be sliced into a neat cuboid, scale compressed into a single image where the rippling of the ground is a tidy pattern of concentric circles, the movement of tectonic plates is a pair of arrows either side of a lightly jagged line. We can understand that power which made our ancestors believe in gods. We can understand that the terrible power of movement on so large a scale is only so many diagrams, so many equations.
This is a theatre review. Very helpfully I put the vital statistics of the play at the top of the page in case you fear you have gotten lost. That formal element is an instruction: welcome to the abstraction, the reflection, the translation onto a relevant plane. A play is the slicing out of a moment in time and a review is the flattening of that moment into a new form with a logic of its own. The reassuring element is that we expect abstraction from a review in the same way we expect abstraction from all parts of language.
A play takes time from us in its own way; we have to be present for the duration or we’ll miss something. The medium of theatre is not only the stage and the bodies of its performers and the lights and the words, but the way they all conspire to convince us to invest our time in them. We must be there for the beginning, we must stay until the end. When taken from my life in a single bite, this piece of my evening is a play. ‘I am going to see a play’ can then encompass that I am going to see three short plays, billed under the title of one of the plays, all of it, and published under the title Three Poems, the three individual plays being Northleigh, 1940; In Stereo; and all of it.
Alistair McDowall is negotiating with time. Time can be spent, time can feel wasted, time can be a medium thick as air, which we pass through, which we see through. Welcome to a review. When I take time from you, however you spend your time here with me, I am negotiating with what makes a play, wherefore the sinking sensation of warmth, of the hauling, compulsive performance of Kate O’Flynn, the fucking endlessness of time and how how how does this single mouthful from one night in London cut into my own core, how how how do a few words thrown down, called out, place me in time, in an audience, combine us all into this awful body together, how how how, how how how.
// I go to London.
The same day I travel to London for all of it at the Royal Court, I visit Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. The triptych is one of my favourite paintings and when can I make the effort to visit and find myself horrified anew.
There is a marvellous serendipity in this specific visit. When I arrive at the Tate Britain I discover that in two minutes there is a short talk about the very painting I made this pilgrimage to see. Sometimes things line up. If we like, we can blame an internal order to the universe or, if we like, we can blame out own brains’ eagerness to find a pattern. In David Sylvester’s series of interviews with Francis Bacon, Bacon says, ‘in my case all painting […] is accident. […] I don’t in fact know very often what the paint will do, and it does many things which are very much better than I could make it do. Is that an accident? […] One is attempting, of course, to keep the vitality of the accident and yet preserve a continuity.’
In my little ritual, revisiting those Three Studies, I too am attempting to keep the vitality of the accident and preserve a continuity. And when I visit the Royal Court, I am hoping to be surprised – but I am hoping to be surprised in a way I expect. What was my experience of London? Oh, the same old capital it’s always been. But entirely different from every other visit, of course.
Bacon takes the familiar subject, the crucifixion, and wrenches the camera’s focus to its feet. We cannot see whom these creatures are mourning. We can imagine, we know enough about crucifixions (and Bacon painted his own ghostly version in 1933). We cannot avoid the truth by looking at a different place; when we stare hard at something sideways or pry into the corners we are engaged in understanding through shadows. We read as Emily Dickinson, we ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’. A vital strategy, being oblique.
Crucifixion strikes me an interesting word because it has retained the ‘X’ which has largely disappeared from words like ‘connexion’, ‘reflexion’, ‘inflexion’. Googling turns up some very sensible points about the Latin routes of these words terminating in ‘X’, but I like to think the persistence of the ‘X’ in crucifixion is due not to the Catholic church’s love for Latin, but due to its inherent poetry. Of course ‘crucifixion’ has an ‘X’ in it – the word must preserve the horror of the act. A violent core, ripping in the heart.
I am drawn to the mutilated and the contorted. And I take pleasure in the dissection. Theatre is a vivisection. Thinking about McDowall’s monologues I can’t escape Samuel Beckett’s Not I, whose own red mouth feels connected to Bacon’s central mourner. If a mouth can be an eye, Bacon’s is, Beckett’s is. Down the barrel of that throat I find a darkness that stares, that yammers back at me a story of my own mad and restless mind. Theatre is a vivisection not because the performer is live, but because we are. If we allow the scalpel of the play into our heads, it carves its way. Central to the premise of Modernism is the belief in things beneath the surface, realities beneath appearance. Modernism has faith in a mechanical universe of the soul; if we delve deep, deep into a single moment, we can understand each kick and current which has dragged us here; if we dive deep into a mind we can understand the unchanging, immortal part of the person. If we can do that for them, we can do the same for ourselves.
all of it, as an evening of theatre, is mutilated and contorted. We’ve done Modernism before, and all of it is not so much introspective as extrospective; the characters of the three monologues are not frozen and exploded in a moment of time, but expanded across huge timelines, experienced from a reactive, perplexed self. Where Beckett’s mouth is a concentrate, a dense full stop, McDowall’s characters are bodies, shifting and affective things which are singular but unfixed; an ellipsis, three holes punched in the page; here, the argument that we become different people because the world around us changes. all of it (the final monologue of the three) does not dive deep. There is no essential self, only a person who happens to exist in a specific place, where a specific succession of events happen to her.
The formal shifts of all of it, its publication as Three Poems, as a collection of concrete poetry as much as of scripts for performance, reflect a concept of selfhood. We are not deliberate souls, immortal and irreducible. We are an accident, finding reflections and rituals, inside a world which buffets us back and forth inside larger accidents. And so the need for multiple formal shifts, inside the whole evening and inside the individual monologues themselves. The world itself changes shape, the single character trapped inside its capricious rules. This instability, this play with reality, these are the elements which draw me to theatre in general, which draw me to the Royal Court, which draw me to the work of Alistair McDowell.
// Oh, life is a horror show.
Horror in the way that suspense is horror and mundane is horror and the slowness of life and the passing of time are horror. These are horror plays in the same sense in which the terrible ordeal of being known is horrific. When some of the audience laugh and I do not I am horrified most of all. Not by them, but by myself in relation to them. I come to the theatre to experience the distance between myself and other people and sometimes that distance is not comforting, sometimes I am in a crowd and that crowd are entirely in a different place to me. This is my life and it is ending one alienating revelation at a time.
One of the stories I tell myself is that these monologues are weird, people get nervous when weird things happen, people laugh when they’re nervous. At that point, I am giving in to the empathy-defeating temptation to pathologise other people’s experience of the world. Sometimes the distance between us, as well as being a space of potential, as well as being a gap we can breach, can be unbreachable, can be horrific. When I am horrified, I am abject, I am reminded that I am only existing and my faith in my own existence can be quashed in a moment, when I am suddenly just a body, afraid.
In these three plays, whether in the face of a relationship with a parent, or the awfulness of adolescence, or casually encountering your own double, the everyday is horrific. Horror can be a moment of growth, or a crushing suppression, but it is always revelatory. ‘Apocalypse’ comes from the Greek for uncovering. When the veil is lifted, something of our old self dies. We all bear the potential for horror inside us because it is the disruption of the normal which shakes reality, and sometimes that disruption takes the form of looking directly at ourselves. When theatre changes what we see, it kills the version of ourselves who existed before, the version incapable of seeing this thing, this small, specific thing. There is a new person where you once sat, something is familiar which was alien before.