The Passing on of Stories - Maddy Costa on Mr Sole Abode

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The Passing on of Stories

Maddy Costa discusses storytelling, legacy, and the thematic connections between Rove, by J Fergus Evans, and Mr Sole Abode by Leo Kay in Exeunt.

A man stands on a stage and tells a story about his mother. How she made a promise to his grandfather, a man without sons, to pass his name along the generations so he wouldn’t be forgotten. How she handed on versions of this story along with its responsibility. The man carries the name as a kind of weight. How to pay tribute. How to remember.

A man stands on a stage and tells a story about his mother. How she would cook pork stew: onions in the pot, carrots in the pot, pork in the pot, chop chop bubble. And roast a chicken: stuff it with lemon, baste it with butter, every 20 minutes take it out the oven, clank schoom clink, baste it again, back in the oven, clunk schurr click. Recipes from Russia, handed down from mother to mother to mother. Ancestry in a mouthful of food.

[Another mother – me – sits at a desk, trying to remember. Words spoken on a stage. Stories told. What might have been true. What remains.]

The stories J Fergus Evans and Leo Kay tell in their shows Rove and Mr Sole Abode travel like soundwaves towards each other; each has its distinct melody, and where they intersect there is a key shift, a harmony of common concerns. And that’s not just because both share their stage with a musician. Evans sits opposite violinist Rhiannon Armstrong, who wields her bow like a feather and a carving knife and duets with him on old Irish folk tunes, songs that carried across the Atlantic to whisper through the trees of the Appalachians. Kay is accompanied by Daniel Marcus Clark, a silent, charismatic presence, who plays instruments that look like time-travel machines: a rusted metal saucer stuck with antenna prongs, across which he draws two violin bows to create unearthly sighs, hums and shrieks; an upright makeshift xylophone made out of junk that clatters ominously in the background. Music tells its own story: as Evans advises, you have to listen with your heart to hear it.

The sympathy between the two shows is in how they think about storytelling. Evans’ prose-poems are rooted in autobiography, Kay’s elastic text in fiction ([the initial inspiration was a character in] Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road), but each blurs the line between the two: any story Evans tells might be embellished, imaginative; the [Russian matriarchs] Kay speaks of could be his own. A few months ago, I saw Kay tell another story in the same basement venue, It’s Like His Knocking: a tribute to his father and grandfather, the [former] an ambitious, idealistic architect. I can’t listen to the patter of Mr Sole Abode – also an idealistic architect, one who wants to build holistically, in a way that recognises the movements and needs not only of human beings but the ground they walk on and the air that blows around them and the sun that warms their bodies and the spirits they leave behind – without thinking of that grandfather. “Telling it how it is, even if you don’t quite know how it was,” was the work of It’s Like He’s Knocking. The same line could apply to Rove, too.

It’s Friday morning, the day after this was published. An email arrives from Leo Kay. I’d originally written that his grandfather was the architect, but it wasn’t, it was his father. I read Leo’s email and wonder whether I can trust my own memory. I tend not to take notes when I’m watching theatre informally: I try to be absolutely present. But I never am: in the moment of watching work reminds me of other work, other theatre I’ve seen, my family, myself, films, books, art shows, stuff I’ve read on twitter. When I shuffle through the memories after the event, can I ever be really sure I know the difference between what was given to me in the room and what I brought in myself? One thing I know I didn’t bring in to Mr Sole Abode was a blog post written by Leo, a link to which is given in the email, in which he talks about remaking the show while grieving his mother’s death. This became the character’s grief, too: the autobiography I sensed in the show. It was by drawing on autobiography that Leo could make a show he first made in 2007 still feel true to him: reflective of where he is in work and life now.]

Evans works himself up to a confession that he’s a rover: constantly moving, constantly searching for a meaning, a way to assimilate the schism between his identity as a gay man and the heteronormative patriarchal responsibility to reproduce and cement his family’s survival. A here today gone tomorrow man who lives in the continent of his ancestors but not on their land, who refuses to be tied down by societal expectation but can’t quite shift the burden of guilt and regret. By the end of Rove he has retreated into himself; his plea to listen isn’t so much a reaching out as a drawing in, to the deepest recesses of his hurts.

[This uncertainty about my memory means that writing is increasingly a place of anxiety. What story am I telling? Whose story? I’ve been anxious all week about how I’ve represented Fergus in this writing: the room was full of distractions (a band playing directly below us in the BAC cafe, which being completely honest I’d forgotten about until Fergus emailed confessing how horribly it had disconcerted him), I was full of exhaustion and emotion (I saw Rove on the same day as my son’s birthday party). Listen with your heart, says Fergus. But what if your heart is so laden with your own stuff that you can’t truly hear anyone else’s?]

Mr Sole Abode has retreated, too: the publicity material chirrups that “he lives in a fridge under a bridge”, but that does too much to make Gavin Glover’s design literal rather than abstract. Glover was half of puppet/animation/theatre company Faulty Optic, and Kay performs Sole as a kind of puppet, permanently hunched, shuffling awkwardly with slightly bowed knees. The fridge/cupboard Glover has created for Sole to inhabit – food piled awkwardly into one wall with a fold-down table, worldly possessions tucked into the pockets of the doors – isn’t just a fridge under a bridge but a thousand lonely bedsits where elderly men wait out their deaths. Like the one off Tottenham Court Road in which Kay’s grandfather retreated from the world and ultimately killed himself.

The spirits of the dead surround Sole, but he doesn’t join them: he seeks to honour them. He could do that conventionally: by having children, or through [grand] architectural [projects]. He chooses to do it instead through art. There’s an extraordinary acrobatic sequence that begins with Sole asleep, upright, in an armchair, legs clambering up the walls of the fridge, until he tumbles out to the ground and – still asleep, still vividly dreaming – begins to twitch and flip his body, fold it and roll it, stretch it and spin it. (Benji Reid worked with Kay as director on the show’s first incarnation; it’s since had input from Stuart Bowden, and the end result is a gorgeous synthesis of hip-hop dance and clowning.) Sole rolls on to a table, then tips over so that the table is on his back and its underneath is revealed: [and here is an interesting ethical dilemma: in the same email, Leo asked me not to spoil the secret here of what’s beneath the table. I’m having so many conversations lately about the independent critical voice. What does it mean to respect an artist’s wishes when writing about their work? To write about their work in dialogue rather than monologue? Are our terms for independent criticism defined by the bullish masculinity that dominates the rest of society? Is anyone taking the time to ask that question?] while Sole croons to his ancestors songs of belonging and home.

Theatre makes time fold in on itself: it creates different ways of remembering, and new sets of memories. Kay’s grandfather lives in my mind now, because of It’s Like He’s Knocking; Evans’ grandfather, who died within 20 hours of his red-headed wife, has lined up to take a place there, too. Evans’ slow waltz with family lore made me think of my own stories: why my name is Madelene and not Rebecca, how my grandparents came to live in London, the disappointment my mother couldn’t hide when I told her I wouldn’t be giving my daughter her name. I resist fundamentally the notion that children perpetuate their elders’ existence on this planet as a cultural construction of (monotheistic) patriarchal individualism. There was a point in Rove when I wanted to shake Evans a little, to say to him: it doesn’t matter! Not having children doesn’t matter! This, this storytelling, this celebration of your grandfather night after night, with strangers he could never have met, holds his memory in the world more firmly than a child.

[Worrying that I’ve missed the point. Worrying that I’ve misrepresented. Worrying that the interpretation is too narrow, too personal, too skewed, pushed to the wrong angle by all that stuff in my heart.]

There was a point in Mr Sole Abode when I remembered a breath-snagging moment in It’s Like He’s Knocking when Kay said, with devastating simplicity, that he’d thought he’d have had children by the age of 40. Who will tell his story to future generations? But again, again, again, that isn’t a child’s responsibility. Sole chooses not to have children, but to think in a different way: less materialistically (and what is a child if not the ultimate possession), more spiritually. He retreats from society because he recognises the extent to which its organisation damages people. I have children and I know they’re being damaged by late capitalism. That’s why I choose, day after day, to keep writing about theatre: because it’s through telling stories about other people’s stories that I hope – however over-ambitiously, however idealistically [with all my fragilities and failures of memory] – to remake their world.

Mr Sole Abode was at Shoreditch Town Hall on 28thFebruary & 1st March. Rove is at The Albany in Deptford from 10th – 22nd March 2015.

Image by Ki Price

Read the article online here.

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