|things any decent human being would submit to the scrap folder...|
I had this evening off, and I had a bit of spare cash, so I thought I’d take a punt at getting in at the theater for cheap. The Griffin in Kings cross is a tiny space, and rush tickets are usually around twenty dollars – and I finally got paid for that stupid poem.
Success! I was in, to see Caress/Ache by Suzie Miller just before the bell went.
I’ll be candid here. There are two things I go to the theater to do – one is catharsis. I’m not a crier, or much of an emoter in real life – in fact, the more serious the impact of something, the less likely it is to be visible. I don’t know why I so consistently fail to react, as sometimes it gets me into trouble - suggesting to others a lack of empathy or general feeling… The most charitable explanation I’ve ever heard is that people who cope this way are just bracing themselves for the next blow, by force of habit. Who knows? But anyway, that’s how I roll. In the privacy of reading a novel (or a dark theater) on the other hand, a line, a gesture or a phrase brings it all (whatever it is) back for processing – not uncommonly to the point of tears. Sometimes a lot of tears. I’m a textbook case of Aristotelian purging.
So, two things, I said... The second is to watch the audience. In the kind of small, affordable places I go to, that’s almost inevitable. I read the play off them as well as off the stage, I guess. And if the play is not doing it for me, I just watch them fiddling uncomfortably, and that’s almost as much fun.
Caress/Ache followed a whole bunch of characters – a surgeon who has just lost a patient (right in the middle of bragging, too), some call centre workers, several mothers – one with a son on death row overseas, two writers rowing over infidelity, a daughter of first generation migrants who’s been told nothing of the country they left behind, in misguided efforts to keep her “safe”, who decides she’s going to find out for herself. It focused also on the theme of human touch, in all its forms and implications, and on that old chestnut we all handle at some point - a lie that keeps the peace, or a truth that disrupts it? It had hilarious moments, awkward moments, painful and sad moments and a couple of weak moments (nothing is perfect). The storylines overlapped, happened simultaneously, brushed past each other – and this simultaneity of sadnesses, alienation, of need and hurt and lies and efforts and last hopes built up, jumping from one scene to the next like electrical current, to an overwhelming edifice of feeling by the end.
Not that I’m hard to overwhelm – I once cried for four hours straight at the end of a Chris Adrian novel.
My favourite part, though, and what really got me, was the projected text they threw up on the walls – factlets about tactile sensation, skin receptors, cold and warmth and touch and pain. I’m a former psych student, I get off on this stuff like no tomorrow – when such a coldly, simply phrased observation cradles half the universe in its implications like a pair of careful hands. (You should have seen me gushing over textbook entries about Harlow’s monkeys back in first year.)
Skin receptors respond immediately to touch, warmth and cold, but pain receptors are the most numerous. Every square centimetre of skin contains two receptors for cold, and one for warmth, but over two hundred for pain.
I was pretty slow to get into this one, though, my suspension of disbelief took a while in coming. The opening was one of the weaker moments, overplayed, and that sours things. It was one of these surtitles that got me in the end. Actually, that’s a lie. It was watching the audience. In the front row there were two teenagers – maybe 16 years old, a boy and a girl sitting close together, a couple. Young, with half-childish faces, earlier in the piece they did their best to hide awkwardness at one of the actors getting stark naked. Or was it at a moment of confrontation? Anyway… The next surtitle appears on the screens:
Touching another is the most intimate of all behaviours.
The experience of touching another person creates a language unique to that particular pairing.
And the kids. Oh my god, those beautiful kids. They hold hands now, looking at each other, touching one another’s fingers in various ways – brushing, pinching, smiling into one another’s face all giddy and new and like they’re the first to discover this thing. The next scene starts. They’re looking at the stage again. And I am too. And now, I allow myself to be transfixed.
And the lives, and the words, and the pain and the hope stream on past us…
There was another thing the audience had going on. In the front row in the bank of seats opposite me I took note of a group of three fashionably dressed, impeccable young women. The most confident postures in the entire crowd. Who here doesn’t judge another by appearance? Please, cast the first stone. The cold beauty of other women, composed and cool, puts the wind up me like nothing else. They looked successful, wore it with such ease, almost disdain. One in particular shimmered like a hard shell, sitting with perfect posture, watching actors with an assessing eye, not transported but measuring, it seemed to me. It made me curious.
Some awful thing in me judged hard. “Why don’t you play along, lady? What, too cool to just go with the show?”
As everyone’s poker faces crumbled, demolished by the proceedings, she alone sat impassive, cool. Or so it seemed. Close to the end, at the crescendo, the light chanced to catch a tear or two, then more, blinked away quick and furtive. Then the quick swipe of a finger across a cheek. It hit me in the guts then – I had read her just as others read me, in my own stalwart composure. I was looking at another person bracing for the next blow, never showing throat nor belly.
Tears came hard. Hard at the events on the stage, hard at the thoughts they brought, hard at memory and at my own persistent misreading of the world.
In the anonymity of the theatre, I don’t think I’ve ever cried so ugly and so hard.
And that’s it. Walk out into the disorienting evening, roll a smoke. Dry out in the breeze, then pop back in to buy a copy of the script. Catch a train, and then another. Go to the café I always lurk at…And write this.