Sunday 12 June 2016

The Milk of Human Kindness – On The Move/LIFT/Royal Court, London

[seen 11/06/16]

Last week, I had to read the 78 application forms submitted by emerging artists proposing projects for the Hodgkiss Award (shortlist here; very proud of it). I mention this here, because there was one section where the applicants had to write briefly about the work of another artist who they admired or were influenced by. The number who put Chris Thorpe far outweighed any other single artist. Thorpe is the kind of writer/performer that people joke they would happily watch read the telephone directory.

On the face of it, The Milk of Human Kindness isn’t far off. Instead of the benign “telephone directory” (do young people even know what these are? In the olden days, British Telecom used to print a book of the names, addresses and phone numbers of everyone who lived in your area. I know. Seems quite mad now, but there you go) Thorpe is instead here reading the top-rated online comments from Daily Mail, Daily Express and occasionally Sun stories about immigration, “the migrant crisis”, etc. For six hours. I think I probably watched at least four hours’ worth, taking occasional fag breaks, and a little lunch break, but, yeah. Pretty much from 12 noon until 5.30.

The show works brilliantly on several very different levels. First off there’s the piece as a durational event. It’s six hours long. In the time I was in the room, Thorpe never once left the stage (nor did he recreate his legendary Leeds Uni graduation piece by peeing on it. Not that I saw, anyway). It’s clearly no mean feat to read out loud for six hours. And read pretty much non-stop right-wing comments at that... The tiredness, the exhaustion, the occasional flickers of exasperation or personal feeling all felt a vital, inextricable component of the whole. Similarly, watching is tough. Obviously not as tough as doing it, but a different sort of difficulty. You maybe find yourself slipping into a drowsy sort of torpor. More worrying is also having to remind yourself that you’re not there to have your mind changed by the opinions of the most popular comments on Daily Mail stories about immigration. There’s an interesting sort of physical condition for watching durational theatre, I think. Instead of the kind of wired tension with which you watch a short piece like, say, Cleansed, you instead relax into just sitting, knowing that everything will likely unfold more slowly. Absolute strict attention isn’t possible, and once dispensed with, it almost feels like you actually watch better. The fact that everyone in the auditorium is also relaxed also helps. No one tuts if you go to the loo. Rustling is allowed. Even occasional phone-checking doesn’t feel like a capital crime to be concealed from everyone else. Slouching happens. You have to be quite alert to stop yourself – in familiar surroundings and watching a familiar performer – just defaulting to agreeing with whatever’s being said on stage...

Which leads to the next aspect of the performance: the predictable fact that quite a lot of it is very funny. I mean, it’s not. It’s really not funny that people think some of the things that we were laughing at yet. Laughter felt, at times, like an important physical part of resisting what was being said: rather; what had been written and was now being read out. Other times, occasionally, there were some really perfectly structured moments of comic pathos. The best involved a white man in his mid thirties complaining about the political correctness that meant there was no special time set aside for him at his local swimming pool and his list of groups that were catered for*. In this instance, it was the coincidence of Thorpe’s delivery and the groups included in “political correctness gone mad” that made it so funny. There were quite a few moments, more and more as it got later into the performance, that had Thorpe corpsing and the audience crying with laughter. If the durational aspect of the piece reminds us of Forced Entertainment and Tim Etchells, the humour also felt like it owed a debt to Stewart Lee. Something about the relentlessness and remorselessness, and the no-comment sardonic tone of voice there almost sets this piece up *as comedy*. In strict fairness to Thorpe, that isn’t the intention. Thorpe doesn’t editorialise. Thorpe doesn’t argue back. He simply reads what these people have said. I mean, given some of the rhetoric that flies around in these comments, it is, on one (arguably farcical) level, Thorpe is even indeed giving a voice to the voiceless. You know those questions that get tossed about in panel discussions about “whose stories aren’t being told?”? Well, these. Yes, of course the (largely, I would imagine) culturally left-wing audience of this show would counter that these voices already have several newspapers telling their stories, and informing their opinions, but, let’s be honest, they *don’t* have a voice on the English stage, so there’s also that.

Which brings us to the next thing that the piece does: it actually does open up a space for considering, and trying to understand, and measuring your own opinions and knowledge against those of people with whom you disagree (or maybe agree with. I don’t actually know who was there, or for what reasons). (In view of the above, I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s description of Al Murray fans missing the irony and laughing through bared teeth. Except here it’s us lefties who are running the risk of becoming the snarling dogs.)  I mean, yes, there’s an obvious antagonism between the worldviews of “leftie, luvvie theatregoers” and the writers of the most popular comments on Daily Mail and Daily Express and Sun stories about migrants, and refugees. These views even come into direct conflict with stories about “the Bard [being] dragged into refugee row: BBC accused of using Shakespeare celebrations to push ‘Left-wing, pro-immigration agenda’” and “Dome tent erected to give migrants ‘safe place’ to have fun in squalid camp / Set up by British playwrights and is backed by West End theatre producer”. Predictably, there’s a fair bit of mud-slinging from the comment writers in the direction of theatre types. There’s also a fair bit of quoting, in relation to the former story, of John of Gaunt’s ‘Sceptr’d Isle’ speech from RII. Which I’ve now seen Chris Thorpe do on stage at the Royal Court. Twice. So, ner to everyone who missed that.

According to my worldview, there is a certain extent to which this afternoon of theatre is like staring into a sewer. But, actually, it is important to distinguish between the views of comments which sound like they’re been copied and pasted from Stormfront or Mein Kampf and those which offer an entirely transparent window into the attitudes of the 12.6% who voted UKIP in the last election and those who constitute a reported 10 point lead for Brexit (12/06/16). Indeed, it’s telling that in a piece ostensibly about attitudes to refugees fleeing war-torn non-EU states, how much of the piece seems to repeatedly return to the question of EU membership with so many posts ending with some variation of “VOTE LEAVE” as their final sign-off. It’s also striking the number of posts that posit Cameron as “a traitor” (the language throughout owes much more than it realises to the translated rhetoric of Adolf Hitler). (Yet more striking, are the moments where they rage that the Daily Mail itself is part of the politically correct conspiracy against them!)  Indeed, you’d think that Britain joining Europe was somehow akin to the Treaty of Versailles, and this is certainly the timbre of much of the argumentation. Much of the demagoguery is entirely emotive, but where it falls back on logic, it does sometimes hit on questions that the Left won’t necessarily have a good answer for either. And elsewhere, while disagreeing on the causes, there’s a lot of shared ground over symptoms. More than one commentator almost goes full-Marxist when it comes to the NHS. And this is another unaddressed issue (obviously, the way the piece is constructed isn’t designed to address it, this is a criticism of the piece), that at once, we hear the less nuanced end of our own rhetoric reflected here too – demonstrating both the internet’s endless licence of hyperbole, and stark truths upon which no one particularly intends to act. Indeed, much of the analysis here, although predictably filtered through a National Socialist filter of conspiracy and racial blame, isn’t just far-fetched. There are basic understandings in many of the posts that Europe’s future does indeed appear to have been signed off by the interests of capital, whose benevolence towards actual populations only extends so far. Indeed, ironically, if these posters are even a fraction as angry as they say they are, the conditions for a Leninist revolution – albeit one, peopled by those who self-identify as “Conservative” – might only by a few weeks away.

At the same time, it’s fascinating to hear from the people on the “other side” who also passionately believe that the BBC and various other liberal establishments are grossly biased against them. From my little actual work in theatre, I’d be happy to say that’s absolutely correct. There is no way in the world that any theatre I know of is going to put on a play that actually propounds these views staged this afternoon (except, uh, it just has). And, yes, yes we are actively interested in soliciting the views of minority artists and women before those of yet more white men (although, it’s fascinating how, in spite of this alleged bias, white-man-blindness somehow still seems to see more of them get through, both numerically and proportionally, than anyone else... See: the main stage of the Royal Court yesterday afternoon for a start, this review for seconds...) Equally, I’d say that the BBC and Guardian *are* also disgracefully biased against Corbyn, and the complaints of some of this grubby little genocidal malcontents under the line at the Express (Richard Desmond’s Express does (ironically but unsurprisingly) seem to attract the most virulently racist comments) are so far right that nothing but Der Stürmer is really going to satisfy their demand for “unbiased” coverage, while it’s very easy to prove that the official line on where the “centre” of British politics is has definitively shifted during my lifetime.

Thorpe’s performance – as those familiar with him might have already guessed – is brilliant. It comes across as incredibly casual and unpolished, and like he’s just lucky to have more compelling charisma in a throwaway gesture than some actors achieve in a whole play. I’d like to hope that there’s more labour involved than this. The “top comments” have after all been copied and pasted into script form, and I assume an order has been decided on, or at least dictated by chronology and noted. Today, a day after I saw it, I’m prepared to say that Milk of Human Kindness is easily as good as Confirmation (difficult to actually compare the two, and no slight intended to Chris’s writing; but as part of a continuation of ostensibly the same project, it feels like Milk... goes further and is more difficult...). I definitely hope that it plays again [EDIT: it IS playing again. Next Saturday (18th) at the Moor Deli in Sheffield]. Perhaps this particular incarnation will be done, an anachronism, in two weeks (for better or for worse). But it’s a mobile, live format that will bear further incarnations. After all, if nothing else, there is seemingly an inexhausible fount of material out there every time a newspaper with a comments section publishes a story. I mean, Christ, these people are real, and what they’re saying is “most popular”. It is, at times during the performance, hard to resist the idea that the printed script of Milk... will be dug up after some sort of terrible apocalypse has extinguished human life and the internet forever, and those future super-evolved cockroach** archaeologists, who have learned to read old human languages, will have found their answer to “what the fuck happened?”

So, yes. Genuinely one of the best things I’ve seen on stage this year. A gruelling intellectual workout and, at the same time, incredibly, blackly funny.

* “This has been happening in the UK for years. A few years ago I tried to go swimming regularly to help a back problem but found it difficult to get many convenient sessions at the council run leisure centre as there was usually a session taking place that I was not allowed into: women only, pensioners only, disabled only, ethnic minorities only, children only. I asked the manager why there wasn’t a session specifically for my peer group (mid-thirties, able bodied, white male) I was told there was no demand for it.

** I actually mean the little insects. I’m not Katie Hopkins.

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