“Wait, don’t eat that” said the person across the table. I stared at the salad that the waitress had just placed in front of me, scanning for whatever shard of glass, insect, or vial whose presence my companion had kindly prevented me from eating. But there was nothing wrong with the food. He just wanted to photograph it. We were in a chain restaurant, I had ordered the blandest option on the set lunch menu, and this moment demanded to be saved forever. As often happens at such times, an image of Jennifer Lawrence flashed across my mind. Last year she was the most prominent of several celebrity victims of a tawdry theft of naked images she had taken of herself.
When I heard this reported on BBC News – doubtless shuffling events in Syria to an ‘And Finally’ slot – my reaction was one of tired depression; even one of the most photographed women on earth cannot allow herself to live in the moment, cannot not document her most private intimate moments.
With no disrespect intended to Ms Lawrence, a victim of a grubby and depressing violation; truly I deplore our incessant need to chronicle every last banal detail of our lives. Our collective indifference to last week’s mooted anti-privacy legislation deriving not so much from a feeling we have nothing to hide but that it probably wouldn’t occur to most of us to hide anything anymore. Heaven knows what psychological effect this engenders but seeing our lives through the cold detachment of the lens, placing self-conscious ironic brackets around all that we see and do, must make us ever less mindful of the present, much less immediately in touch with ourselves and others.
Theatre however remains a haven of Now. The moments that inspire tears, laughter, fear can only be documented in our memories. If we drift into reverie or – as I mortifyingly did a fortnight ago, into outright sleep – then that’s that; there is no rewind, no opportunity for catch-up or YouTube, it’s gone forever.
And as Chris Goode’s Men in the Cities unfolded before me I, for once, felt a visceral sense of loss that I couldn’t pause and rewind and pause and rewind. It is too sad to think I might die before seeing this again. Because this was miraculously good. I arrived as a devotee of Goode, the memories particularly of his earlier work The Forest and the Field still hauntingly real, but was unprepared for the sheer ambition of this work.
There are reams that could be said about Men in the Cities and its themes of masculinity, sexuality, and attempts to find meaning amongst the most deplorable violence. An exploration of the literary underpinnings of this work – wearing its erudition with the very lightest of touches – especially its relationship to Don DeLillo’s masterpiece Underworld could make for a compelling study in its own right. But such gestures tend to represent an ego-trip of the critic, a “look how much I perceived” act which, in this case, would only serve to demonstrate the extent of how much was embarrassingly overlooked. In drama of this power, such analysis is almost in bad taste, because it misses the most important invitation which is of a writer-performer bearing his soul.
Goode’s honesty is almost unbearable. One of several climaxes in Men in the Cities is a sort of mad-scene (or, depending on your perspective, the only true sane-scene) of a bereaved father that is of an intensity and lyrical beauty that really places this amongst the very, very elite works of theatrical achievement. Always impressive as a writer, I had not understood before quite how gifted an actor Chris Goode is, and in a one-man show to absolutely and thoroughly and repeatedly transform yourself is a truly rare gift. What he sacrificed of himself to give this I cannot imagine but he shouldn’t be allowed to operate heavy machinery for at least a month.
Reeling from this scene of almost Classical reach, a few minutes later another emotionally violent moment occurs between Goode and his elderly father. The shift between enormous existential rage and desperate tender domestic crisis is managed effortlessly; the tiny and gentle gestures are completely heart-breaking.
At the end of the play, Goode walks off and, endearingly, can hardly navigate his way through the maze of curtains at the side of the theatre. As we walk out, I am unable to speak for a few minutes. I am delighted to learn the text of the play is available to buy, and buy it I shall since Goode’s novelistic stream-of-consciousness combined with a poet’s instinct for beauty-in-details would repay careful and repeated study. But as a whole performance, Chris Goode’s sublime play will remain potently with me, far eclipsing the faded photographs, and leaving profound, astonishing memories for a very long time.