Maybe it’s coincidence or maybe Kim Noble has planned this but right at the beginning of our interview, a few days before the Soho Theatre run of his extraordinary show You Are Not Alone, James Blunt croons through the speakers ‘look who’s alone now, it’s not me. It’s not me’. Except it is. It’s James, it’s me, it’s Kim, and it’s everyone. That’s the point of the show. There are fewer moments of out-and-out audience shocking than his last show, no deliveries of semen to women in the audience (though there is a bit where Noble does a poo in a church and pokes at a dead pigeon), but there is a deep exploration of what it means to be alone.
It’s sometimes disturbing, but it also gets across its profound theme in devastating ways. I got a message from a friend recently – someone outgoing and outspoken – simply saying that he felt lonely. It was surprising partly because it seemed out of kilter with that friend’s personality, but also because I don’t think we’re used to recognising the feeling in other people, especially not those friends who are in settled relationships and seem to have everything they need for a life of contentment. When I saw it in Edinburgh, Noble’s show made me confront my own unavoidably solitary existence, but it also made me think about the way I connect with others. It forced me to come to terms with the fact that the way I feel is not unique to me. Small steps on a road to empathy. I wanted to find out Noble’s philosophy of loneliness. Is it universal? Is it something personal?
‘It’s both. I didn’t set out to do a show about loneliness at all, but it’s come at a time when there seems to be more of a discussion around it. I’m having correspondence with a prisoner in America and the first thing he said on his profile was ‘man should never be lonely’, and he’s a convicted murderer. Lots of things seem to be conspiring. I think with social media people are more aware of it – 1000 friends, but no friends.’
I didn’t have that many friends to begin with, maybe a few hundred, but about three months ago I laboriously went through all of them and deleted anyone I didn’t like, anyone I didn’t know that well, anyone, really, who didn’t add to my life in some way. It was almost 200 people. On Tinder you flick through hundreds of strangers in minutes without giving them a second thought. Wart? Swipe left. Crooked smile? Swipe left. Likes Taylor Swift? DEFINITELY left. Looking for ‘friendship only’? Left left left.
‘I do that. I don’t want to say it’s shit. It’s just weird. There was something that Janis Joplin said years ago, that performers on stage make love to 25,000 different people then go home alone. From my point of view there’s some of that, as well as the external loneliness that lots of people have. Even people in relationships, they still feel lonely: the loneliness of a crowd.’
In the show there is a mixture of brief connections with members of the audience, and longer term connections with people – like men he’s been having relationships with while pretending to be a woman. But the man on stage does not match up to the man talking to me. On stage he’s fearless, and here he’s modest and doubtful of himself and the show. He says he’s not a social person and that he shies away from audience interaction when he is an audience member.
‘I’d never go and see my show. I’m really squeamish, I faint at the sight of a paper cut. I’d walk out of my show.’
It doesn’t make sense. How can he dissect a pigeon on camera and then claim to be squeamish?
‘I’m not necessarily enjoying it. I filmed myself taking my clothes off at a really cold pebbly beach and I walked in the sea and swam as far as I could. It was November, but because I knew I was filming it I didn’t feel cold at all. If you were to start bleeding now I wouldn’t be able to help you, I’d run away. But give me a camera and I’m fine. When I did the show in Europe one person passed out and another person vomited.’
Did he stop the show?
‘No, I carried on. It was quite near the end. Anyway, if the show fucks up it’s over. I’m not going to do some mother in law gags. It’s over.’
Noble’s show got to me. I didn’t vomit and I didn’t walk out, but I’ve thought about it frequently since I saw it. I’ve thought about death and getting old, I’ve thought about my grandma and I’ve thought about the video in which he wipes his dad’s bottom. Most people have parents or grandparents in similar situations to his dad – not just isolated physically, but trapped in an increasingly confused mind that is slowly detaching them from reality, from sanity, from the ability to make connections with the people they love. Those moments in the show move the focus away from Noble to someone who does not have the capacity to consent. In a way, Noble’s claiming power of attorney. Did he find those scenes difficult to include?
‘I didn’t, though maybe I should have. I have a default setting: film difficult things and put them in. His story became relevant to tell because I was feeling like one man in a room not sure what the fuck he was doing, then at the same time there was my dad and all of a sudden I realised they were the same story. I feel a bit of a fraud, because he’s not able to say those things now that are in the show. And I don’t feel like I’ve really told his story. Someone said I was using my dad’s difficulties for my own gain. That was difficult to take.’
I’m surprised there aren’t more frequent repercussions for the things he includes – recordings of his neighbours having sex, voyeuristic pictures and videos of members of the public. Is he worried about it?
‘Constantly. But I’m compelled to do it. I’m a bit of an arse, because I don’t have an issue with it. I’m not going to kill anyone, but I really wish I could do something else.’
Giving out awards, pretending to be a woman, fashioning vulvae out of chicken breasts – what he calls ‘projects’ – may be embedded in his day to day life, but this kind of life-as-art/art-as-life social flagrancy hasn’t always been his way. Noble made (relatively) tamer work for TV in the early 2000s: he was in a few episodes of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and he created Noble and Silver: Get Off Me! for E4, six completely unrelated episodes with his erstwhile performance partner Stuart Silver.
‘There was one episode I was quite proud of, but it wasn’t shown because E4 pulled it. There was no English in it and no subtitles. Half of it was a made up language. I think Channel 4 burnt it. Apparently one of the heads used it in a keynote speech to say ‘this is the kind of stuff we will never show again’. I suppose it was quite niche.’
He talks about a desire to move from theatre to film, but in his gentle, self-effacing way he claims not to have the writing talent. So, after he’s solved loneliness, what’s next?
‘I’m scared that this is the last thing I’m going to do. What’s next? It might be nothing. I might become a taxi driver. I was chopping up some squirrels yesterday and I thought, could I become a butcher? ‘No’ was the answer straight away. But it would be nice to turn my hand to something like that. One of the good old skills.’
I’m not sure about butchery either, but it seems to me that Noble would make a great taxi driver. He has the ability to connect with people in an intimate and unintimidating way. Maybe it isn’t possible to stop those niggling, negative sensations that cut across the joys of life, but a cab ride with Kim would certainly be a good way to face up to them. Just don’t be surprised if, in a couple of years’ time, your face ends up on the poster for his next show.
Tim Bano’s review of You’re Not Alone.
Kim Noble’s You’re Not Alone returns to Soho Theatre, London, from 8th December 2015 – 9th January 2016