This is sort of a continuation of a conversation started in October 2018 between me (Maddy) and Rosemary Waugh as An Encounter with Dance Nation. Given how much the two of us like chatting about theatre and performance (and feminism, books, art, life, etc etc etc), we’re turning it into a series. Thank you for reading.
I want to tell you about three birds. Women. Birds.
The first is an eagle. Her name is Anke. She wears sequinned trousers and a brown faux fur jacket, the fur of it long, as long as feathers. She is thinking about the woman she used to be, before she was in her 30s but particularly before she had children. A woman who loved to dance, who would go to techno clubs and dance all night. Her arms are looped through two aerial straps and her body is rising slowly from the ground as she remembers how it felt to live to her own time, guilt-free. Free as an eagle. Now her body is falling and a beat is rising; back on the ground she begins to step, sultry and louche, a cigarette hanging from her mouth, arms arched as though they are wings. Her steps turn into a spin, and now she’s spinning so fast her body blurs, so fast it’s like she’s flying, abandoned to the movement, to the music, to the memory. The spinning stops and she dances again and my own limbs are pulsing and I’m thinking of this piece by Julia Bell on dancing and fucking at Berghain in Berlin and I’m wondering if I’ve ever been an eagle and I’m thinking probably not.
The second bird is a phoenix and this one you’ve seen. Her name is Old Bryony and she wears sequins too, a long-sleeved dress in a bronze that gleams like flame. New Bryony is almost drowning and the phoenix comes to save her with a memory of who she used to be: also dancing, also free. There’s such a magical, hopeful quality to the juxtaposition of these two bodies, New Bryony desperate, Victorian white nightgown stained with the blood of her heart torn out, standing so still, childlike even, while Old Bryony flickers about and beside her, a will o’the wisp whose will is that New Bryony should live, within and despite the pain. And so New Bryony lives, at once phoenix and ash, shadow of former self and firelight casting the shadow, memory still less salve than searing.
The third bird is a raven: Anke is a raven, and so are Romy and Lena, and Bryony too, and me. We are Rabenmütter, raven-mothers, a centuries’ old German term for a bad mother who neglects her children for whatever selfish reason. We share a reason in the desire to work, a selfish pursuit of meaning and worth outside of the domestic sphere. Raven is the name of the circus show Anke, Romy and Lena have created together, with Bryony as director; it’s the name poked at women deemed to have moved beyond their station, but it’s also the name internalised by women, as so much misogyny is internalised, so that the trio apply it to themselves and also to others. Like this: at the start of Raven when the three women sit on a sofa each nursing a baby doll, smiling smugly at each other, until one or other deviates — feeding from the bottle instead of the breast, or weaning from the bottle altogether — and the smiles turn to scowls. They become an unkindness of ravens.
But Anke, Romy, Lena and Bryony are also a congress of eagles. They are also a myth of phoenixes. I know you didn’t see Raven, that what we’re writing to each other about is I’m a Phoenix, Bitch, but I struggled with Bryony’s show where you didn’t, and I think it has something to do with carrying these three birds in my heart. I’d like you to tell me how it was for you, so I can begin to see through a different perspective.
I’ve sat and thought about these birds for almost a week, but specifically the line: ‘I’m wondering if I’ve ever been an eagle and I’m thinking probably not.’ I don’t think I’ve ever been an eagle either, although I kept thinking this week about how I was obsessed with owls as a child and what that suggests about me. I mean, for all the solidity and supposed rumination of owls, no one ever thinks of them as soaring. They sit hidden in dark branches, watching watching watching. (Like theatre critics, perhaps.)
It also made me reflect on one of the things I liked most about I’m a Phoenix, Bitch. There’s a seemingly throwaway comment Bryony makes where she explains she’s performing the show in her exercise clothes because she realises that so much previous angst in her life has related to her body and how she looks (or, more likely, if she’s anything like the majority of women, how she thinks she looks). That line caught in my throat. Firstly because I so utterly related to it, but more because it suggested that the Old Bryony, the one in sequins, wasn’t a perfect phoenix — or an eagle — but also a container for a version of pain (if not quite so acute and all-consuming as what she later experienced) that the sequins were detracting from.
Here’s one thing I’m trying to do: stop apologising. I apologise so incessantly and unnecessarily that my husband ends up exasperatedly begging me to stop saying sorry (to which, obviously, I reply with an apology for my need to apologise). One thing I’m trying to stop apologising for or belittling is having a personal, entirely subjective response to art — not least because I think the learnt ‘objective’ response represents a privileging of the ‘masculine’, hard-edged, distanced reaction to the world.
I loved/responded to/ached for I’m a Phoenix because it name-checked pharmaceuticals and discussed the world of medicine, hospitals, appointments and this is, to me, its own form of bravery because something I’ve noticed from reading a lot about illness is how little people often want to know. Aside from the routine “and the medical staff were angels” comment (even when, sometimes, they’re not — the other line that closed my throat was when Bryony relayed replying to the crassly delivered news her son would never be “a doctor or a lawyer” with the line, “I told her he was going to be a performance artist anyway, and fuck you”), people surprisingly rarely talk honestly and directly about suddenly having medicine as part of their day-to-day existence, even in actual medical memoirs.
So that’s a completely idiosyncratic connection I made with the work, but the other one (and it’s not un-linked, couldn’t be un-linked to the previous paragraph) is that, at age 30, I find myself consciously looking for templates of how to be an adult. By which I mean, an older woman passed the point of being a twenty-something in crazy outfits always drinking, dancing, fucking the wrong people, imagining that was the route to flying. We could call what I am looking for a “role model”. Only I’m not looking for one, I’m looking for many. For women who have learned how to exist without continually carrying with them, for example, crippling angst over how their body looks.
Until you pointed out the obvious hint of the phoenix in the burnt orange sequins, I hadn’t considered that the phoenix metaphor was meant to be taken as meaning she was a phoenix to start with that then turned to ash and reappeared. I somehow re-wrote the myth in my own mind so it resembled more the Greek myths where people transform into new entities they’ve never before been. In this sense, I saw the phoenix more in the crow-black workout gear than the red dress. Put another way, I saw it as less a circular narrative and more a linear one, the hint that out of the monumental pain and disintegration to hit Bryony’s life came a new being, one that hadn’t existed before, but one that took sustenance from the memory of the sequinned Bryony.
I used to consciously, really angrily fight against any “pain makes you stronger” narratives. Partly because, on a global, historical level, that kind of thought has been used to justify the continued, needless suffering of many people. And partly because I didn’t feel thankful for having had seven years of chronic pain, and certainly didn’t feel like it had made me stronger. Now I… now I… now I still want to avoid adhering to the storyline that most seems to comfort other people (poor girl got ill, but look how angelically grateful she is about it all — because I’m not in Little Women), but, cautiously, I get it. I don’t want to say it’s true that pain makes you stronger, because I don’t wish pain on anyone. But I do think it’s possible to assume a shape from ashes, to solidify back out into something new, something that can cope with the continually rising tides of life. I think I said to you that since seeing Bryony’s show I’ve taken on the mantra “the river is rising and I am strong”. I can’t stop the river rising, but I can stop myself from drowning.
I’m still not a phoenix, I don’t think I’ll ever be one. Or an eagle. But a few years a go I bought a hand-painted scarf with the wings of an owl painted across them. It reminded me of Athena, the Greek Goddess associated with owls. She seems like someone who can cope. And she likes art.
(PS: I apologise on behalf of Athena for what she did to Medusa. I mean, that’s kind of like the worst version of the internalised hatred we put on other women. But then, that story was written by a man — Ovid — so who knows…)
There were two bits of pre-show publicity in my head when I went to see I’m a Phoenix. One was a line from the marketing copy: “We will need new myths to survive the end of existence.” What you say about Athena, Medusa, Ovid, reminds me that most of the myths handed down to us have been rewritten, translated, themselves metamorphosed by the mangle of patriarchy; earlier this year I started reading The Iliad to my son, but we had to give up because the representation of women, mortal or immortal, was unbearable. (We’ll try again with the Emily Wilson translation.) The other was a line from Bryony’s interview with Lyn Gardner for Run Riot: “it’s a mistake to think people are there to see you. They aren’t, they’re there to see themselves.” Which strikes me as particularly fascinating given our shared interest in, and practice of, “a personal, entirely subjective response to art”.
In the same marketing copy, Bryony says the myth she’s shaping is that of “the invincible and fearless woman”, and here something divides between us. For you the mantra “the river is rising and I am strong” was something positive, something you have adopted for yourself; for me it was devastating, and I’ve been trying to work out why. I think it’s something to do with the specific performance I saw: the night after press night, when my impression — possibly false, Bryony might refute it absolutely — was that all the adrenaline and excitement that accompanies the crescendo of press night had dissipated, and Bryony was exhausted. I found it physically painful watching her lifting weights; there was a desperation to it, a difficulty, that spoke not of the invincible woman but of someone pushing herself beyond her limits or worse, punishing herself. The mantra of strength alternated with the vituperative comments of her inner critic, condemning her as weak, pathetic, a failure. Each leering criticism punched, and I felt that keenly.
It’s funny: last year, as a writing exercise, I tried to envisage who my inner critic actually is, and found that she is a bolder, more elegant, more creative version of me, one who never had children. I remember particularly that she had nails like talons. That eagle again, perhaps. Bryony doctors her voice so that when her inner critic speaks, he is (cis) masculine, but that difference aside, that’s where I saw my mirror, not in her strength. And at the same time, her experience felt singular and rare. There was something about Bryony’s exhaustion in the performance I saw that made it harder to connect with either her misery or her recovery. I wondered in fact if she’s processed these experiences at all, or reliving the trauma night after night at risk of further damage to self.
There’s a lot in here about the expectations that attach to performance art: that people dredge up the most vulnerable, damaged, difficult parts of themselves, often without support unless they organise their own counselling. Although there is some amazing work being done around artist care — I think, for instance, of Ria Hartley’s Ecologies of Care initiative — this is far from standard practice in the industry. And there’s a lot in here about care more widely: Bryony’s isolation within I’m a Phoenix, in the choice she made to perform solo, reflects the isolation of that period, living away from family and friends, estranged from partner, subject to the thoughtlessness of medical staff, and that reflects in turn a wider current of isolationism, the rise of loneliness, the effects of the privatisation of care, the effects of an economic policy of austerity on provision within and outwith the NHS for disability and mental health. I wonder whether what we need isn’t so much new myths to survive the end of existence, but a reconsideration of care that makes it integral to human relationships — not just within romantic partnerships or nuclear families but across extended communities, including a resurgence of the welfare state.
But this is to take a really wide view: let’s narrow back down to the actual work on stage. Again with the proviso that I was watching it on a very particular night, it seemed to me divided between a before and after: a before that is narrow, narcisstic almost, but also scintillating, presented through a series of songs that made me wonder why the fuck Bryony isn’t a pop star already; an after that expands across the whole of the stage, in accord with her related ambition — shared with a lot of performance artists — to work at a bigger scale, an opportunity not often afforded by a criminally risk-averse theatre industry. I didn’t actually realise I was reading the phoenix as circular until you pointed it out, and your connection of my circular to your linear reminds me of one of my favourite passages from John Berger’s And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos, which I quote bloody everywhere, that there is a time of the body and a time of consciousness, the first linear, the second circular, and capitalism strives to eliminate the latter, to human and environmental detriment. Already I’m back at the wrongs of capitalism, and one of the things that interest me most about I’m a Phoenix is the way it exposes the patriarchal-capitalist dream of the nuclear family and the big house in the country as more of a nightmare. Call it new myths, new dreams or new role models, there’s definitely a different set of stories women need.
There’s a book by art historian T.J. Clark called The Sight of Death. It’s based around the author’s experience of returning again and again to the same two paintings hung together in a room of the Getty Museum and his shifting responses to it. I really love this idea of returning repeatedly to an artwork as I like to do it myself. One of the best things about having free access public art galleries is that you can keep going back to see one part of the collection, in a way that is much more difficult/impossible with theatre or a temporary exhibition.
One of the paintings that I like to return to is Millais’ Ophelia, partly because each time I do it I get to reflect on all the other times I’ve stood in Gallery 9 of Tate Britain doing precisely the same thing and how inevitably different things have become since then. I also find it intensely comforting, just to know she is there. Like, everything else changes but you can still count on Ophelia semi-submerged underneath a willow down on Millbank. In fact, if I am in Tate Britain for another reason, I will usually pop into Gallery 9, just to say hi. When they moved her from the back wall to the side wall I had a moment of panic (like everyone does when faced with change) but then I acclimatised to her new home and decided she might even look better in the new spot.
It’s fair to say I have an unnaturally large interest in Ophelia: in how Millais (and others) painted her, how Shakespeare wrote her, and what other people have said about her, including one of line of thought that’s interested in Millais’ version as part of a collection of Victorian-era women who are all dead or dying in picturesque, semi-sexualised ways. It occurred to me the other night when I couldn’t sleep that maybe — subconsciously — the reason I latched onto the image of the rising river in I’m a Phoenix (and, of course, it was me who tacked ‘the river is rising’ onto the front of Bryony’s own mantra) was because it connected to the image of Ophelia, drowning.
Recently, I read another book with a drowning connection: The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh. It’s hard to convey just how much I love this work and how it has got better and better in my mind ever since I finished gobbling it all up on a train journey to Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s about three sisters who live in a remote, isolated home with their parents, entirely cut off from the rest of the world. One day, their father — who periodically visits ‘the mainland’ via boat — leaves the house and never returns. Shortly afterwards, two men and a boy are shipwrecked on the beach and come to stay with the girls, who have always been taught that mainland men bring with them toxins that will irrevocably damage the girls, perhaps even kill them. Shortly after the males arrive, the girls’ mother also disappears for good.
As the title suggests, the motif of water recurs again and again, for example in the ‘drowning games’ the girls participate in, and the eponymous ‘water cure’ which is given to them and, in the past, to mainland women who would come to stay in their home hoping to be ‘cured’ from the illnesses inflicted on their bodies by mainland men. But the best thing about The Water Cure is that, when you think you have a measure on what the story is about, it completely inverts itself. Everything you think you know at the start of the story, you don’t know at the end. And it ends up being the most brilliant, modern, feminist (whatever you want those words to mean) story — but not at all in the way you first think it is.
The reason I keep going on about The Water Cure to everyone I know is that it felt — please excuse the cliché — like a story I hadn’t been told before. Like a genuinely different piece of writing. It’s been compared to The Tempest and King Lear and I don’t think it is actually like either of those plays, but it’s certainly interesting to sit it in opposition to the works of Shakespeare, the daddy of the Western canon, because in one respect it is a reconstruction — deconstruction? demolition? — of the types of stories he wrote because, metaphorically and literally, the women don’t drown.
Periodically I return to the thought that one of my missions in life is to rescue poor maligned Ophelia from the cold bathtub. And then I remember that Alice Birch and Katie Mitchell got there first (and probably did it better than I would anyway). Ophelias Zimmer, and other works that have focused on Ophelia or tried to tell her story, don’t necessarily stop her from drowning. But in a sense, they do. Because the twisting around of culturally entrenched stories like Hamlet, or the writing of entirely new ones like The Water Cure, is an act of resuscitation or life-preservation. What I’m trying to say is that I think maybe it is the ‘new myths, new dreams, new role models’ and ‘different stories’ that stop us from drowning?
I have an intense antipathy to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (starting with that title), and I’m interested in how what might have begun as a conversation from one place of difference — me having kids, you not — has become a conversation from another place of difference. But what you’ve written also makes me think about another moment of convergence between us, discussing Dead Centre’s Chekhov’s First Play, and the line in it about learning to do something much harder than dying: learning to go on living. This is what I think you’re talking about in your last paragraph: the act of resuscitation or life-preservation that teaches us how to go on living. To wave instead of drown.
So maybe the myth Bryony is shaping is one of endurance. Motherhood is a work of endurance; so is living with a chronic illness. The long run of I’m a Phoenix, as I said before, is another act of endurance. In this frame I see weightlifting as such a useful metaphor: it’s an act of endurance, but also an act of strength, of choice and of command. Bryony can choose how heavy the weights. It puts her back in control.
Here’s what Clarissa Pinkola Estes says about endurance in Women Who Run With the Wolves — an entire book of new myths and new dreams for women — in relation to the fairy tale of The Handless Maiden: “The word endurance sounds as though it means ‘to continue without cessation’, and while this is an occasional part of the tasks underlying the tale, the word endurance also means ‘to harden, to make sturdy, to make robust, to strengthen’. … We don’t just go on to go on. Endurance means we are making something.” A something other than, additional to, sadness.
You’ve reminded me of two things I wanted to respond to from your previous message. I think what Bryony said about the audience being there to see themselves, not the performer, has a lot of truth to it. But I feel a kind of guilt about that, because it recognises the amount that we, as audiences (whether critics or not), demand from artists and performers.
When I was at the Edinburgh festival this year, my favourite work was a piece called Cock, Cock, Who’s There? by Samira Elagoz, in which she talks about her rape and shows footage of her meeting male strangers via the internet in order to explore interconnected ideas around sex and violence, and how men respond specifically to her and the way she looks. When I saw the work, I thought it was so much more complex, forceful and interesting than almost anything I’d seen on those topics previously (Imogen Butler-Cole’s Foreign Body being an exception), partly because it went into very dangerous, messy territory that I think most conversations about sex and violence and desire do not. One of my gut reactions on seeing it was: ‘I want to interview this woman’, by which I actually meant (as I joked to my friend), ‘I want to know this woman!’ Fundamentally, I wanted more from her. As in, she created and performed a piece of art according to how much/little she wanted to give to the audience and I just needed more, more, more.
Later in the festival, I read a review by Hannah Greenstreet of another show in which she mentioned how she found watching Cock, Cock, Who’s There? difficult because she’d worried about the personal safety of Elagoz and questioned the idea of reliving traumatic experiences onstage as always being cathartic. If I’m honest, when I first read that it irritated me because I thought it belittled Elagoz who had made a work that specifically went against the trope of women who have been raped as vulnerable, broken — as victims. I also felt like the power of the work in so many ways lay in its dangerousness.
But Hannah’s review stayed in my head because I kind of knew she did have a point and, in a way, I felt slightly guilty about it. Because it revealed how my response to seeing a human on stage talking about trauma wasn’t simply to care for them, it was actually to encourage them to go to the darkest places possible, because I wanted to go to those places. In the run-up to seeing that show I’d been thinking a lot about violence and desire, and hearing someone else dive into that felt revelatory, and like some kind of small release, as it does when you hear another human say the things that are echoing in your mind but you thought you weren’t allowed to say out loud.
But as I’m writing this, I realise once again the unbelievable selfishness of this. There is this ancient idea of actors giving themselves up onstage each night to say the things the audience need them to, or to perform the stories the society around them requires. And in some ways that seems like an immense demand to put on someone. Maybe this is particularly true when the writer and performer are the same person and the story is autobiographical. It makes me wonder if the flip-side to looking for ‘role-models’ is to take, take, take?
Our previous conversation, on Dance Nation, ended with a huge question: what do we want from feminist theatre? And this question you’re raising is even bigger: what do we want from artists? Another good place to pause and reflect, before we begin the conversation again.