I worry about Rehan. I’m sure he’s OK. I’m sure he’s being looked after. But I worry. Because he seemed so comfortable with himself, or at least it that’s the impression he gave off. And I liked that. I liked him. He was nice. And then he just kind of vanished. He got dropped, lost, and we never found out what happened to him, where his story took him. But I’m confident he’s in good hands (there’s a pun there I’m going to step around). I’m pretty sure nothing awful has befallen him.
Rehan doesn’t actually exist, which helps. He’s a character in Chris Goode’s intricate, flooring solo-show, Men in The Cities. The newsagent who’s present during the early passages of the show, the one who contemplates reincarnation as a prawn. MITC is a piece I’ve seen before, almost exactly a year ago in fact. On the press day at the Traverse during the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. The performance was scheduled for 11am if I remember correctly. First show of the day. In the deep dark pit that is Traverse Two. I’m not against mornings. I’m actually quite productive in the morning. I do a lot of writing before noon. But, fucking hell, Men in the Cities is a lot to digest when all you have in your stomach is coffee. I’m not sure I did, digest it entirely. I’m not sure I was quite up to it. I got all tangled up in the characters and their time-lines.
But in the days that followed it was a show which sat with me, actually more kind of sat on me. It lingered. Back of the brain stuff, hovering like a wasp. So it was a relief and a release to go down to Forest Fringe a week or so later after that morning performance and see Goode perform his one-off salute to Pete Seeger, How Can I Keep From Singing, to sit cross-legged on the worn Drill Hall floor just like in school assembly and join our voices together. It felt like an immunisation. We sat there on the floor and sang We Shall Overcome and that was lovely, that sense of communion, it really was – I can’t really sing and I don’t think I’ve properly let go of my voice like that since I was in a school assembly. (OK, maybe once in a piano bar, but there had been a lot more wine involved). But even here, in this antidote of a show, Goode purposefully stepped around the line about living in peace and that felt right and necessary. It synced with all the things Men in the Cities was saying about violence and anger, the necessity of rage, about how a person can possibly respond to a world so soaked in those things.
And so for me the act of revisiting the show at the Royal Court last week was fascinating. I mean, for one thing, it’s an absolutely extraordinary piece of writing, intricate and beautifully delivered. But when you’re watching a thing for the second time, there’s inevitable difference in the way you engage. You listen to a piece differently when you know what’s coming. There’s this swell of anticipation, but there’s also this process of negotiation, with your own memories of the play. You greet the text in a new way. I heard things and felt things I hadn’t expected and I think I appreciated the beauty of the writing more on this second listen, I think I engaged with the words more, I listened more actively maybe, but I was also better braced for the anger, for the things that it was saying, for the places it wanted to take us. I’m not sure whether it lessened or heightened its impact. Both, maybe.
And, oh God, that moment when the music swells and the backdrop of desk fans start to spin, that moment was still like a fist. It’s just so raw, and it just keeps going, the poetry of exhaustion, this plea, this scream. It reaches the point where it should stop, it should end, for everyone’s sake, Goode’s poor throat among them, and still it keeps going. Goode steps away from the microphone and continues to rave. He paces, hoarse, emptied, a strange street preacher, a shadow of a man, a vessel.
Oddly, there were also times while sitting there, watching, where I found myself thinking of Dubrovnik, a city I had recently visited. A city I’d last spent time in as a child. And I was struck throughout my trip by how much the tiniest of things could evoke the most complex of emotions. And I know that’s news to no one, I know that’s how brains work, but I was still surprised by the force of it, the potency of odour: the saline tang of the air, that particular intermingling of pine needles and cigarette smoke, and how transporting it could be. It was the same place, in so many ways, and yet it wasn’t even the same country it had been when I last visited. Nor was I the same person. Occasionally I’d look down at the pristine gleaming marble and see the scars of bombardment. Sorry, I’m not quite sure where that train of thought came from.
I’m always struck with how physical listening can be. How you can shape the air around you without saying a word. Sitting on a bench at the back of the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs during Men in the Cities, hearing all these stories – Graeme, Jeff, Brian, Rufus, Ben , Matthew , Rod, and Rehan – for the second time, I become very aware of the fact that the girl next to me was really not that into it all. I could hear these odd little sigh escaping her and she was checking her watch at intervals of roughly three minutes. But the woman on the my other side, a woman I’d say was in her seventies, was enraptured, totally caught up in the piece, her breathing pattern subtly shifting with each change in character. “Tour de force,” she whispered at the end and I couldn’t argue with that. Both of them exerted their own pressures on the atmosphere around them. And I too was listening differently this time around, exerting my own pressure on the room. I had no choice but to do so.
Stewart Pringle’s review of Men in The Cities.