A quick response to a group talk entitled “How do we find hope?” convened and facilitated by Chris Haydon

Written quickly, not properly edited, not neatly argued.

My initial response, on receiving the invitation to a group discussion about “How do we find hope?” my initial impulse, is to laugh. Like it’s ridiculous in its earnestness and melodrama. It makes me want to sing “where is the hope?” to the tune of Where is the Love by The Black Eyed Peas. It has something of the Flight of the Conchords “what is wrong with the world today?” about it. Of course, I have concerns about the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote too (this is what brought up the “hope question” by the way: the “events” of this year). But talking about “hope” seemed so inadequate, so mealy. Of course, you need to believe you can have a positive effect on the world so as not to fall into depression and paralysis. But this seems to me to be a truism rather than an argument about the need for hope. Hope, especially in this context – theatre directors waxing lyrical about hope in a discussion at Young Vic – seems so thin and flimsy and wishful. Like a magical rainbow which will bring us all together and make everything better – a disneyfied magic, when what we need is a different kind of magic, a real magic, an igneous and old and ritual magic. It seems like talking about hope in this way is indulging in fantasy rather than taking action.

What should action be, then? In other words, what is the Good Society, and how do we get there? Well, if we’re talking what is the economy of the Good Society, and I think that’s a useful place to start, I don’t think it’s a million miles away from the economy of the Young Vic directors network. That is to say, offering each other our time and energy and skills for free (in talks and workshops just like the one in question, this talk about hope), and becoming indebted to one another in the process. Within the Young Vic network, it’s fair to assume that we have a shared idea of a societal project where creativity and play and stories are allowed to play an important part in everyone’s lives, irrespective of their class, or income or race or religion. Big picture: the world needs to move towards a no-growth or very low growth economy, and we need to be able to do that while maintaining good standards of living, because the environment is going to hell in a handcart. We need to build a society which, when it measures the health of its economy, looks at the value of care and creativity and play. This is what I hope the network can become. Making art needn’t be expensive. We need somewhere to call home, enough to clothe ourselves, to eat, to travel to keep warm. We need that security. And it is possible to provide that security, those basics for everyone – there’s plenty of wealth to go around. And once you have those basics, the question is what to live for, and the answer is for play, for love, to find ourselves and our place in the world.

In our group discussion about “hope” a recurring theme was that the Other is alienated, disempowered, frustrated and angry. A question arises: do we reach out to them and try to empathise or do we tell them that they are wrong? Both of these responses are an impulse to “fix” the Other. But we cannot fix everything, and we certainly cannot “fix” the other. Can we even fix anything? We can fix ourselves. It is not just the Other (the 52%, the Trump voter) who is disempowered: I (me, Ben) am disempowered. I do not feel like I am represented politically. I live in a system which is cruel and absurd. My frustration and alienation is the same as the frustration and alienation of the Other (the 52%, the Trump voter). So we can fix ourselves. First, on a personal level. Then on the level of the network. We can organise. We can use the network, the networks to give ourselves a voice, to find a way of achieving a better democracy and a better society, and then to reach out to the ones who are cast as the Other to say that we feel like we don’t have a voice either, and we want change too, and we want to feel like we live in a society too, like there is such a thing as society, not just a whole lot of communities existing independently of one another and never interacting (this is not how things are, but it is often how they are cast). To start among ourselves is not to preach to the choir or live in a bubble or an echo chamber or whatever we’re calling it these days. It is to recognise that we need to change, to take back control ourselves and for ourselves. We cannot fix the Other. We can only fix ourselves. That is why we must become the Other and the Other must become one of us.

The Destroyed Room @ BAC

I saw The Destroyed Room at Battersea Arts Centre last Saturday. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, about what it felt like to watch it. My stomach became knotted as I watched. The moment which keeps coming back is the moment I noticed the water beginning to seep across the stage. It came from under the fridge, beneath the worktop where the bottle of wines were stood. I don’t know if that’s where it always starts, but for a minute perhaps, I was thinking maybe a bottle of wine had been knocked over, or that the fridge is leaking. The couple in the row in front of me were squirming as well. Writing about it now, I can feel my stomach becoming knotted again. It was frightening.

A few months ago, I made a series of podcasts, documenting research I was doing into a show about the housing crisis. We recorded interviews with people who were being displaced by regeneration projects on housing estates in London (of which there are lots). We invited spoken word artists and poets to record each episode with us, and asked them to respond to the material we had gathered. Images of water kept appearing in our conversations with them: of people not being able to keep their head above the water, of being flushed out, of floods, of drowning. It was just after the image of the drowned boy on the beach had appeared in the media.

Around that time, a friend of mine living in California wrote to me. He wrote about the ocean and surfing, about seeking out powerful currents and waves and riding them, and the sense of wonder and fulfillment of being carried in that way, how he understood his own life in these terms (I’m simplifying). I was struck by how different our metaphors had become. How, in Europe, the sea was a place where people drowned; in California it was something with which to be “at one”.

For a while, around this period, I began spending more and more time reading comments below the line on Guardian opinion pieces about the refugee / migrant crisis in Europe. They made me feel sick, but I couldn’t stop reading them. The ones which had been recommended the most times by other readers seemed to be the ones which displayed the least empathy or imagination. It wasn’t doing me any good – they were making me angry and upset, and they were taking up a lot of time and mental energy, but I felt compelled to keep scrolling through them. I work a lot at my computer – they were only ever a click away. Eventually, I managed to come to terms with the BTL comments after reading an essay by Stuart Hall where he develops Gramsci’s ideas about “common sense” in relation to neo-liberalism:

“[common sense] is a form of ‘everyday thinking’ which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the realities of daily life and answering the needs of ‘the common people’ for practical guidance and advice.”

After reading Hall’s essay, it occurred to me that what was bothering most about the comments was their “common sense” quality.

That idea of “common sense thinking” kept coming back to me as I was watching The Destroyed Room – the banality / triteness of things said in the face of complexity, the necessity (or not?) of reducing complexity to this level of discourse, how the content of what is being said is often irrelevant (what is actually going on is a negotiation of power / status rather than a logical argument), the impotence of this form of thinking, its inability to effect change, even in the face of disaster…

iou1 conversation – Anne

her “so if people give you a gift what do they get back, in return?” – “that’s not what a gift is” me – too glib for my own liking even at the time even though facetious even though playful I change tack – serious “everything I do will be a gift I want to make a gift of everything I do”. Anne gives out money for a living – she gets paid to give – the heritage lottery fund has funds they pay her to give out funds she gives them out it’s a living – maybe it’s different but there’s an overlap a definite connection I’d like to investigate. “What if we’re all taking out and nobody’s putting back in? What if everyone decides to do nothing? What if I’m gifting and other people are taking? Isn’t it our nature to be out for ourselves, to be individualistic?” And I talk about how I believe this is an ideology made up forty years ago – the ideas themselves are not new but the idea of building an entire economy an entire society on the bedrock of these assumptions – the assumptions contained in these questions we now take to be common sense – this is a recent phenomenon.

As an aside:

[How terrible it would be to not be useful. This we all feel. Yet we cannot shake the belief that other people would choose to be useless would choose not to work not to make themselves useful to others not to make things or apply themselves or seek to shape the world or be active within it or do. Do things. How unhappy they would be. How unhappy they must be. How unhappy they are (they are unhappy). How low our opinion of others. How low our opinion of ourselves. I had a beer with Tom last weekend – that’s another post – noted that money was no incentive for him or me that he would write software anyway that I would make theatre anyway. He says “but we’re different”. But we’re not different. I do not believe we’re different – this is the gamble I am prepared to take. There is an assumption an assumption abroad a shared assumption that money only money is the incentive but when I ask others when I ask people when I ask other people if that’s the case for them when I push them prod them prompt them they answer “no, the incentive the want the desire is located elsewhere”.]

Back with Anne we talk automation and debt (and is it real) and unemployed truck drivers and driverless cities and what are holidays “if money was taken out of the equation I would behave like I was on holiday” “yeah sure for a bit, but after a while you would get bored of that you’d want to work” “yes” “you like to work” “yes”

We’ve been talking a long time. Anne logical methodical implacable un-ostentatious. I hope she’s enjoying working through this she seems to be someone who enjoys working through things thinking things through unpicking things and this – this is useful. The gradual unpicking of an idea. The gentle tugging at threads. As things come apart they come together too.

“With this project it takes a long time to explain what the project actually is” she says. “Yes” I say “but that’s the project”.

Thanks Anne, I owe you one.

Postcapitalism and theatre meeting 24 March

Around an ageing laptop (mine)
with tiny tinny speakers
Paul’s nine minute and forty five second summary
of his four hundred page book
from a parked car parked in a car park in rainy Haverford West
we gather.
Across a big wooden table
we set forth
to ask where we are
and why

It’s just us

is full of potential
potential pitfalls too
with no set task at hand
or set person tasked to say
this is what we’re going to do today

Do we even trust each other?
Do we even know each other?

We’ll get to know each other
We’ll gain a sense of who we are
We’ll take a census of who’s here
We’ll come to a consensus about process
We’ll process a dissensus in content
We’ll sense
When it’s there
We’ll sense what’s in the works
A project a production a thing that we produce
A book
A zine
A blog website facebook page online platform database
(do we know anyone who’s good at online stuff?)
A festival
A network
A movement
A manifesto
A skills-sharing cooperative
A collective

There is a swell
Of energy and conversation
It swells and dissipates
Today we gather round
Circle and take steps
But we will not bridge the distance
of the big wooden table
between us

That’s OK

We speak
of short and long-term goals
of stairwells

There’s paper
I’ve brought forty sheets
Of A1 paper
The roll of paper
That I’ve brought
For the paper exercise
(‘cos you need paper for a paper exercise, right?)
Has not been unrolled
The roll of paper
Stays stuck in my hands
Remains rolled
There’s paper
And there are pens
But we do not put one to the other

Pens and paper will be for next time

iou1 conversation – press night at the Young Vic

Will is just the right side of manic – he’s had a beer.
Poppy is just the right side of lary – she’s had some beers, and some wine.
Hannah glances at her watch.
Rachel… it’s funny, it sounds like she’s playing the hostess, which she is I guess, because she’s introducing people. But she’s also not overplaying the hostess. It’s a subtle performance.
Alex is bright and deadpan, I tell him he looks like Ben Whishaw.
Lily is sober and upbeat.
I’m sober too, and in the mood to explain the iou1 project. In fact, I don’t introduce it, Will does. We’re doing introductions (we’re always doing introductions at these things), so I introduce a game where we introduce one another. Will is being waffly and modest about what it is he “does”, so I big him up a bit and say he’s worked at the ROH, and then Hannah, who’s a publicist introduces Poppy, who’s a director, and then Will introduces me and sets in motion The Conversation. I start off talking about the relationship of exchange and the relationship of gifting. How the project, the iou1 project, is a bid to push back against the all-pervasive logic of financial exchange, and introduce a relationship of gifting into areas of my life where it does not, as of yet, exist, to ask people to think about money and value, to have a conversation about what work is and why it is necessary (it is necessary, I hasten to add, but not as a chore, not as labour for the sake of labour, labour for the sake of subsistence; as a society, we are productive enough for that to not be necessary; but work is necessary, work produces meaning). Poppy says “this sounds serious”, laughs, delighted. She is genuinely delighted, I believe, but I don’t know if she will remember any of it the following morning. Hannah glances at her watch. Rachel and Alex need to leave “be in touch”, “call me”, “bye”, wave. Will has heard it before. He’s going to give me podcast when he does his radio course. But with Lily, Lily to whom I spoke before, it seems to land (or maybe she’s just being polite and a good listener). When I tell her about it (and it’s actually been a while since I’ve had The Conversation, so maybe I’m out of practice) I stumble a little. I do the porridge bit, which works well, but get lost in how the relationship of exchange, the logic of exchange needs to find new areas of activity to expand into, that this is capitalism, that with the emergence of new technologies which reduce the need for labour and therefore profit, capital must find other activities where a profit can be made. I forget to tell her about why it is important to me, why I believe it is dangerous for the logic of exchange to trump other logics. In retrospect, I tell myself this is something I must not forget to include But she is a good listener and it seems to have landed.


Work in progress

A week at the Albany, Deptford, working on Britain’s Got Tenants. We made a lot of stuff and put it all out there, in front of an audience, to see how it felt. And, well, it felt a little jittery, some of it. And a few bits felt like they hit the spot. Often, I got the feeling the audience wasn’t sure how they were being asked to react. An interesting comment afterwards – “I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be panto or stand-up comedy”. Overall, a lack of clarity in the performance, but much greater clarity in my own mind now about what I want it to be. An exhilarating Thursday and Friday working with Alex. Particularly fun / challenging working on Boris – half toad, half ape. I didn’t manage to nail him in front of an audience on Friday night, but last night, he was there in our kitchen, with MC and Esteban (neither of whom had seen the show).

After the show at the Albany we had to run away to get to another performance – part of a sponsored “walk through the night” organized by the Big Issue Foundation. We were providing entertainment at a rest stop in Vauxhall – the walkers got a hot drink and five minute extract of BGT. It was a shame to have to leave the Albany without getting a chance to speak to friends who had come along properly, but I’m glad we did it – it seemed to go down well.

big issue


Remembering January, Part 3: A New Economic Model for Arts Funding

As mentioned in my last Remembering January post, last month I took part in a three-day workshop to examine the transition from feudalism to early capitalism through the lens of early modern drama (Shakespeare and contemporaries). This was of interest in itself, but also, potentially, a way into thinking about about the boundaries and nature of capitalism today, about what our argument with capitalism is, and how capitalism might be superseded by something else. Paul Mason calls this “post-capitalism”; I’m going to go with that too for the time being. Since this was a workshop with a group of people working in theatre, we discussed how theatre can represent or a play a part in post-capitalism – what is a post-capitalist theatre?

As I also mentioned previously, at the beginning of January, I found out that the the funding application for the show I’m currently working on, Britain’s Got Tenants had not been successful. Since then, we’ve also had a funding application for Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka rejected. This has prompted thoughts about how to fund my work, and about funding for the arts in general.

The following started as a response to an idea that was proposed at the end of the post-capitalism workshop: that a new model for funding the arts could be to attract corporate sponsorship to:
– build a technologically better-equipped theatre
– the company would put their name on the building
– audience members, would “plug into” it in some way and the corporate partner could have access to certain types of data about the audience (this might be of value to them)
(This was the idea, in very broad brushstrokes)

The following should be read more in the spirit of a “provocation” than a fully thought-out plan which I think is ready to be implemented

The network – that’s the new technology. The theatre building itself needn’t be “hi-tech”.  People already have the technology in their pockets. What more is the theatre building going to provide?

The reason we were able to do the Post-Capitalism workshop is because the Young Vic has a well-administrated network and a heated room that was given to us free of charge. I am able to organize a fortnightly improvisation and theatre games night in the same way: I have an idea I want to try out – the Young Vic organizes a room for me and sends out an email to however many hundred directors on the network, people who are interested get back to me, we get some work done together. From the perspective of a “maker”, the YV directors’ network is an invaluable resource for facilitating work which wouldn’t otherwise be happening.

Rather than spend money on a theatre building (however hi-tech), we should invest in a network, network administrators, and places to live and work for artists (more on this below)

The national theatre network

If the idea is to get a big tech company to offer sponsorship in exchange for access to data, I don’t believe a building, however well technologically equipped, is a particularly attractive proposition. Even if you have, say, 1,000 audience members a night, and they’re all “plugged into” the building in some way, you’re still only gathering limited amounts of data for people living in a relatively circumscribed geographic area. However, if you have a national network which theatre-makers, venues and audiences are all logged into, advertising shows, booking shows, giving feedback on shows, you’re generating a lot of data. That data is potentially valuable, because it is not limited to people’s online browsing or shopping habits, it gives you information about how people from all over the country, from all different backgrounds, etc. go out into the “real world” to have a good time.

[I need to run this idea past people who actually know what makes data valuable]

To an extent, these networks already exist. The Young Vic has its network, the National Theatre of Wales is essentially a network, I think (although I don’t know much about it, so someone correct me if I’m wrong), there are any number of rural touring networks…

The national network will integrate all of these into a single network which will perform all of their current functions: facilitating collaboration between artists, booking tours, developing audiences, etc.
BUT it also goes one further: ultimately it will enable audiences to invite shows / art exhibitions / concerts to an arts centre / theatre / community hall near them directly. A show / concert / exhibition will have a page with a description, reviews, pictures, video, ratings and comments from other audiences who have seen it. If enough people in a given area want to see a show, it gets booked.
People all over the country will be able to order art (performances, concerts, exhibitions) online, like ordering takeaway off Just Eat, except it will be free!
(more on how the “free” bit works below, but first, accountability)

The network has the potential to solve the problem of accountability – it allows us to be directly accountable to one another

The problem of accountability is about how we justify giving public money to artists. At the moment we have reporting, targets, feedback forms etc. As anyone who’s applied for Arts Council funding knows, this creates a burden of admin which can be seriously inhibiting to small organizations. It also creates a burden for the Arts Council: a disproportionate amount of their time and energy is spent dividing up an ever-shrinking pot of money. Let’s get rid of the pot of money, cut out the layer of bureaucracy that goes with it, and use the people who work for the Arts Council in a more productive way (in more of a “producer / facilitator” role, for example). We no longer need to be accountable to a bureaucracy because we are directly accountable to the audience (they will leave feedback on our page after the show; they will decide to book the show, or not) and the audience and venue are accountable to the artist in the same way. The principle that we are directly accountable to one another is how trust is built online, for both commercial services (Uber, Air B’n’B, etc.) or non-commercial ones (couch-surfing, Wikipedia, etc.). I don’t see why it shouldn’t work for the arts as well: there are no commissioners or gate-keepers, just artists, audience, facilitators and administrators.

The new economic model

The new economic model is that artists work for free. It’s already happening. Imagine trying to raise the money for the three-day workshop we just did if you had to pay everyone union rates [about 15 people took part in the workshop]. This raises the problem of how the artists survive. Some options:
– only wealthy are able to work in theatre: an exacerbated version of what we have at the moment (nobody wants this)
– we pay all the artists involved in the scheme (ultimately thousands of them) a union wage. This is potentially prohibitively expensive and, for me, not an appealing option for two other related reasons:

  • We introduce a relationship of exchange where none is needed or wanted. The artist’s work has a value which cannot be measured in financial terms. So let’s not try.
  • If we’re talking about a post-capitalist theatre, we need the artists to buy into a post-capitalist philosophy, and a union wage works strongly against this

(this is a little elliptical – I’m happy to expand if people are interested. The important point is that this is a model based on gifting, not on quantifiable exchange)

– the reason union wages are necessarily high is that much of them end up straight in the pockets of landlords charging over-inflated rents or banks charging interest on mortgages. Instead of spending our sponsorship money on rent and theatre buildings, let’s spend it on homes, food, basic amenities and transport for artists (this is all we need and it won’t cost much!). Let’s build the homes somewhere cheap (not London or the South East of England). Let’s set them up as a co-operative structure where tenancies are secure and it is not possible to make a profit out of increases in land value (the homes cannot be sold for profit). Artists will also need:
– laptops and mobile phones
– work / rehearsal space (this should be straightforward too: there are lots of empty spaces, especially outside of London).
– materials with which to make art (again, this is generally quite a small proportion of any budget for an arts project – wages take up most of it). A lot of materials could be donated.
– network administrators
– When artists tour they will be hosted and fed by local friends of the venues (I’ve done this – it can work really well and it means that your hosts are automatically more invested in the show). The model is built on the principle of gifting rather than exchange.

Artists will still need some cash to interact with the rest of the world. Venues will not be charged a fee to book shows, but there could be a Pay What You Decide ticket system on the night, and the proceeds from this would be divided up equally between all artists in the network. Alternatively, we could allow artists to do paid work one or two days a week.

Corporate sponsorship

As mentioned above, corporate sponsorship doesn’t go towards a building or paying union wages, it goes towards:
– building, maintaining and administrating the network
– free homes for theatre-makers built in cheap places and co-operatively owned.
– basic food / transport / amenities for artists
– mobile phones and laptops
– materials for art (this probably needs to be defined a bit better so it can be costed properly)
– rehearsal space and performance space
While some people might feel queasy about a model which gives a big corporation access to personal data:
a) it’s already happened
and b) there’s something intuitively very appealing about Paul’s idea of post-capitalism growing within the husk of capitalist structures. I realize that’s not a very rigorous argument – open to discussion.
For me the big question is: would the data generated by such a network be valuable enough to a corporation for them to cover the above costs…?


Clearly, it’s going to be difficult to make West End musicals or big-budget operas using this model. However, it feels to me like a good structure for creating contemporary, popular theatre: theatre which could only have been made now (think of all the shows which look like they could have been made at any point over the last sixty years) and which has a wide appeal.

We do not need to invent new forms for the age of the internet, they are already being invented. Just as, over the past 60 years, the language of film and TV has seeped into the theatre, over the past 5 years so has the language of the internet. A lot of the most interesting contemporary theatre I have seen recently has created an experience which has much in common with being online. A few “strands”, off the top of my head:
– the “performance / live art / theatre-lecture” types. They can make shows with their mobile phone and their laptop (venues will provide a video projector and screen). Their online presence is an extension of their work. They have co-opted the language of the internet into their theatrical vocabulary: they create a new type of public / private space (the boundary between their own lives and their art is fluid), they have found theatrical transpositions for “links” and “browsing”, they use film and pictures and videos and anything that you can do with a mobile phone, a laptop, a projector and a screen
– the large-scale outdoor spectacular.  A particularly interesting example, for me, is Slung Low in Leeds. Their base is about as a low-tech a base as you can imagine, but their work harnesses the potential of networked individuals through large-scale outdoor community shows which the audience will film on their mobile devices and share with friends. Around 150 people from the local community are participants in the show – their family, friends neighbours want to come along and see them.
– Interactive theatre: playing at being a capitalist in World Factory or playing in the city with Coney, etc.
Some of these use mobile devices directly, others have adopted, transposed or subverted the codes of the networked individual.

As for the classics, I suspect the model will mean they have to be re-written in quite a radical way, which might turn them into popular works again…



iou1 / The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I’ve been reading Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (An-Ting is working on an adaptation of it with her company; I went to see a work-in-progress showing of it at the Royal Academy of music). The following bit put me in mind of the iou1 project (it reminded me of the potency and significance of insisting on paying for something):

‘Then you won’t take the book?’ I asked, more mildly than I had yet spoken.
‘I will gladly take it, if you will let me pay for it.’ I told her the exact price, and the cost of the carriage besides, in as calm a tone as I could command – for, in fact, I was ready to weep with disappointment and vexation.
She produced her purse, and coolly counted out the money, but hesitated to put it into my hand. Attentively regarding me, in a tone of soothing softness, she observed, – ‘You think yourself insulted, Mr Markham – I wish I could make you understand that – that I – ‘
‘I do understand you, perfectly,’ I said. ‘You think that if you were to accept that trifle from me now, I should presume upon it hereafter; but you are mistaken:- if you will only oblige me by taking it, believe me, I shall build no hopes upon it, and consider this no precedent for future favours:- and it is nonsense to talk about putting yourself under obligations to me when you must know that in such a case the obligation is entirely on my side, – the favour on yours.’
‘Well, then, I’ll take you at your word,’ she answered, with a most angelic smile, returning the odious money to her purse – ‘but remember!’
‘I will remember – what I have said; – but do not you punish my presumption by withdrawing your friendship entirely from me, – or expect me to atone for it by being more distant than before,’ said I, extending my hand to take leave, for I was too much excited to remain.


Remembering January, Part 2: On Bondage

January saw a return to The Merchant of Venice, which I’ve written about previously. I was reading it in preparation for a workshop led by Zoe Svendsen and Paul Mason. Their idea was to build a database of economic data mapping the transition from late feudalism to early mercantile capitalism in early modern drama (Shakespeare and contemporaries). For example, does a given character lend money? do they charge interest? do they own boats? do they own land? do they have the same name as their land? etc. I chose to work on TMOVTimon of Athens, and Romeo and Juliet, which was an opportunity for a close re-reading of all of them, but especially The Merchant of Venice.

Bond / bound / bind appears 44 times in TMOV, mostly in reference to the bond between Shylock and Antonio, but also:
“love’s bonds” Salarino to Gratiano, 2.6.7
“Fast bind, fast find” Shylock, 2.5.52
“I am not bound to please thee with my answers” Shylock to Bassanio 4.1.64
“Antonio, gratify this gentleman, / For, in my mind, you are much bound to him” Duke to Antonio, 4.1.401
“This is the man, this is Antonio / To whom I am so infinitely bound” Bassanio to Portia 5.1.135
“You should in all sense be much bound to him / For, as I hear, he was much bound for you” Portia to Bassanio, 5.1.136
And, of course, there’s the bond of marriage (although the expression is never explicitly used in Merchant, it appears elsewhere in Shakespeare, e.g. “within the bond of marriage” Julius Caesar, II.i)

Perhaps this is the reason I keep returning to TMOV – Shakespeare asks (at a time of transition on a scale which is hard to comprehend), what is holding society together? There are plenty of bonds in the play, not just the contract which ties Antonio to Shylock: bonds of friendship and marriage, of allegiance to fathers, the law, the state, religion. All of these are becoming financialized. In a society where relationships are increasingly seen through the prism of financial exchange, what becomes of trust, loyalty, duty, empathy, love…? Maybe this is why the Merchant of Venice seems to hang together so awkwardly – it is about a society which hangs together awkwardly, a society bound by financial transactions, but also deeply uneasy with the possibility that this is all that might bind them. Sound familiar?

I was reminded of Shylock’s “merry bond” yesterday when listening to an old episode of Thompson’s Live, Chris Goode and Co’s podcast. In a conversation about the difficulties of characterizing the activity of making theatre, or music, or writing poetry as “work”, Andrea Brady riffs on the idea of “bondage”, i.e. formal writing constraints. She explains how her first year university students talk about poetry as “a window onto the soul”, a sphere of unconstrained freedom. Historically, however, poetry has always involved strict formal constraints. What those constraints might be today is an open question; Chris Goode suggests we turn to our artistic practice, to our “work”, to find out what they might be.

The bond, then, is not just what ties us together; it is also a restraint (sometimes a useful one, in the context of creative activity). It occurred to me that this was something that Will was picking at during Games Night last Tuesday – when does the bond (the rule) stifle us, and when does pushing back against it, overcoming it, or subverting it release creative energy? When no rule is specified, what conventions and hierarchies do we fall back on? All questions, of course, which we can meaningfully ask outside of the rehearsal room too.

Last year, I had an epiphany when reading David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years and decided to start a project to redefine my relationship with money. That’s still going on, by the way, I just need to take it to the next stage (giving myself some deadlines would be useful). It came back to me when I met up with a couple of American friends who were passing through London; they spoke about the next financial crash taking root in the mountain of student debt (students graduating with $150,000 of debt, stagnant wages, student debt being packaged and sold on by financial institutions in the same way that sub-prime mortgages were). I wondered if student debt has become a contemporary, structural form of debt bondage (obviously, unreconstructed debt bondage or slavery still exists, but not on an institutional level in the West). By taking on that level of debt as a young person you are committing to a certain type of job (a certain type of economy), even if you hate it and don’t believe it has any value other than financial value. Maybe this is why crappy jobs which don’t need to be done still exist.

Through the merry bond, Shylock and Antonio are able to live out a fantasy which is excluded by their respective positions in Venetian society. Antonio has fantasies of submission and Shylock fantasizes domination. Antonio is not allowed to be submissive – he is a pillar of Venetian society, a successful merchant, an aristocrat and a Christian; Shylock is not allowed to dominate – he is a Jew. The bond gives them the freedom to “be themselves”.

At the beginning of January, Sophie and I found out that the Arts Council had rejected our application for funding for Britain’s Got Tenants – a disappointment (for obvious reasons) and a relief (after almost half a year of preparing the application and waiting for it to be processed, we finally found out where were at). We’d already been offered a week’s rehearsal space and a slot to show a work-in-progress performance at The Albany, so we decided to go ahead and make something without any money. We’ve invited a load of people to see it: friends, housing campaigners, people I’ve interviewed over the past year, theatre producers and directors. This is a constraint, of sorts. Hopefully it will make us very creative. More, better deadlines, now!

In the next Remembering January instalment, I will talk about whether public funding for the arts, in its current form, is a useful form of bondage.