1. in which Edwin Barnes is a man to be reckoned with
Tony Collingwood, whose London-based animation studio would later be responsible for Dennis the Menace, launched his career on the unexpected international success of a tiny 23-minute independent cartoon he made in 1988 about a place called Rarg.
I will wake you with a kiss, I know it already. But not yet, definitely not yet. I’ll wait until I hear the street-cleaning truck getting close to our building… so that it’s me who wakes you up instead. On Tuesdays and Sundays it’s that truck, on Wednesdays and Fridays it’s the garbage one, on Saturdays it’s the potato lady, and in summer it’s the heat.
But it’s still winter.
And I woke up because you’re not here, you’re not in bed, you’re not here next to me.
You are sleeping on the couch in the living room because there, supposedly, is where couches belong. Beds in the bedroom, couches in the living room, that’s how it goes, you remind me every so often.
You are sleeping on the couch because today is that day of the month, the one when we wake up apart. Because that’s also how we went to sleep, apart… me in the bedroom, you in the living room.
I miss you… that’s my first thought on every that day of the month. I miss you, though I know you are only seven steps away from me, though I know you are actually here.
That day of the month exists for this purpose, so that I miss you in bed, and you miss me on the couch, so that we miss each other together. It’s our little monthly ritual, a ritual of missfulness we have chosen to adopt.
Some time ago, long ago, before we started kissing, when we were still just friends, all the days of the month were days of waking up apart. Because we also went to sleep apart, each in her corner of the city, one in Derenčin Street, the other in Trešnjevka…
And if we are no longer just friends, if now we kiss often and a lot, it’s the fault of your couch, where we spent our first night together. It’s the couch’s fault, just like for others it’s the fault of stars or destiny or wine. That’s what I say. You say that it cannot be the couch’s fault for something as beautiful as you and me, because fault is for errors and harm, and we are neither of those things. It can only be the couch’s achievement, you tell me and add that it’s high time I learn the meaning of certain words. Such as for example couch, such as for example bed.
Because beds are for sleeping, and couches for sitting, you explain, while I wonder how then it’s possible that we slept on the couch our first night together. In my former apartment the bed- and the living-room were one and the same, so there it was possible for the couch to be the bed, you tell me, but otherwise it should be punishable by law, people having couches and calling them beds. And using them as such. Then I say you’re full of shit and I don’t want yet another Babić-Finka-Moguš fight, and you say it’s not a fight but a conversation and my problem is that I don’t use the right words for things. Things such as for example couch, things such as for example bed.
I think about all of this while you are still sleeping on the couch, the one in the living room.
Yes, you have agreed to that, although couches are for sitting, and beds are for sleeping, you have agreed to it because today is that day of the month, the one when we wake up apart.
And I, awake in this bed for sleeping, can hear the street-cleaning truck getting close to our building. I get out of bed, I walk seven steps to the living room, to the couch, to you.
It’s winter and I wake you up with a kiss.
You can’t not write about that, you told me and from then on I no longer understood anything. All around me, all I could see was negation, naysaying, negatives, I thought that perhaps the end of this last sentence should say: after that I no longer understood nothing, and I could no longer remember what it was that I couldn’t not write about, probably about something impossible, which isn’t possible anyway.
And as you were laughing at my suffering, because you know very well that to me double negation is the terra incognita of Croatian language, I was panicking, trying to calculate how the two negatives in your sentence could form something positive, something affirmative, something different and understandable to me. Just like two minuses make a plus, I thought, two nos might yield one yes, in which case your sentence might say, You can write about that.
But then I remembered I had the same thought when I was trying to translate the sentence, No one did nothing, nowhere, never, into something with fewer negatives, and the end result was me returning the play containing that sentence to the second-hand bookshop the same afternoon, because I had spent the afternoon trying to decipher what the author, literally—literarily—meant. I thought I understood the play on the first reading, but when I realised it was teeming with negatives, its unreadability suddenly became unbearable, suddenly it was incomprehensible and I could not not return it to where it had come from, together with the containing book.
Jasna Jasna Žmak is a dramaturg and writer based between Zagreb and Belgrade, dealing with the issues of queer love and even queerer language. She is the author of two performance texts, two short films, one book of prose and several essays.
I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it, I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else. On that morning, all that I was told was that I had been found behind a dumpster, potentially penetrated by a stranger, and that I should get retested for HIV because results don’t always show up immediately. But for now, I should go home and get back to my normal life. Imagine stepping back into the world with only that information.
The Critic taught theatre theory at the Victorian College of the Arts. There were two main things she taught. The first was that there is no ‘us’ to us: no kernel of truth. Everything we are is the result of a long process of styling our bodies and our minds, a training, in order to represent our category of human. Man. Woman. Poor. Rich. Important. Immigrant. Fuckable. Good. Judith Butler said: “One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body.”
And Erving Goffman said:
Society is organised on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in a correspondingly appropriate way… and that an individual who implicitly or explicitly signifies that he has certain social characteristics ought to have this claim honoured by others and ought in fact to be what he claims he is.
The class discussed that heartbreaking paragraph for hours, trying to understand what it meant if society was a long con. If we all wore our roles, and if your role held little prestige—say, if you were queer or poor or an immigrant or a woman, or perhaps all four—maybe your best bet was to try to pass as something else. Elocution classes. Looking heterosexual. Faking until you make it. To fight structurally—to try to bestow respect on a disrespected category—was more than a single individual could do. The second thing she taught them was that language could change the world, because naming things brought them into existence.
That month, an unconscious woman was raped at Stanford. It was surmised that the case only made it to trial because there had been two male witnesses. The rapist’s father wrote a plea for his release, saying that his son was “paying a high price for twenty minutes of action.” But the victim wrote a long statement, too, where she described the year that followed her rape: finding out the details of what happened in the newspapers; wanting to protect her family; outbursts of rage; panic attacks; having to sleep with the light on. “My life was put on hold for over a year, my structure had collapsed.” The rapist was sentenced to six months in prison, less than the minimum required, because, according to the judge, a longer sentence would have “a severe impact on him.”
No one talked about this stuff when the Critic was raped, at twenty-four. One pretended it never happened, because it was shameful to have been raped. To be raped meant that you had let your guard down, you had low self-esteem, and now you were hurt and damaged. Hurt and damaged people deserved no respect. Only those who were strong got respect. Australia gives no time of day to the weak. If one wasn’t strong, one had to learn to pass. And to be rapeable, strangely but assuredly, demonstrated that you belonged to a weak group, not worthy of respect: woman, queer, all of the above.
A sea change came around 2013: women started to write about rape. Jessica Valenti raged about it, Rebecca Solnit analysed it, Amy Schumer made jokes about it, and Melbourne theatre critic Alison Croggon, whom they all knew, wrote a harrowing essay in Overland in which she said, among other things: “It took me a long time to work out that I had agency in relation to men.” As they spoke, more and louder, it turned out that rape was frightfully common—that the question to ask your female friends was not whether, but how.
And with that long letter, written by an anonymous woman in 2016, it was as if a precarious point finally tipped. It was the first time that the culture at large heard, and listened to, the emotional truth of a raped person. With every read, share, and comment, it shone dignity on what had been shame. That is how language makes the world.
The interesting thing about rebounds is that one often isn’t aware they’re having one.
PULL QUOTE: The interesting thing about rebounds is that one often isn’t aware they’re having one.
Certainly, there are those where one cannot quite lie to oneself. The one-night stands. The hastily start-and-stopped relationships with clearly incompatible people. The ones you come too close to, and then retreat from. The occasional toilet sex.
But then there are the outliers. A summer of flirtation with Alex, for example, right on the heels of Karen, was clearly no more than a band-aid hastily applied to the Critic’s concussioned heart. But Alex was a good person, a decent person, and also German and prudent, so not much more happened than some exchange of wise books, some pleasant frisson, some meaningful conversations down by the Landwerkskanal, where groups of people gently moored boats equipped with beer coolers and entire sound systems playing easy summer techno (because this was Berlin, after all). In a very German way, Alex asked questions and diagnosed, with a simplicity and clarity.
“How long has it been since your last relationship ended?”
“For me too, four months. That means we will be fine to date again in another six. Until then, we can be a two-person celibacy team.”
But the un-dating they did still had a beneficial effect on the Critic, because the best rebound is, of course, a friendship with just enough romantic overtones to put a warm compress on that bruised heart. They gently held hands, protected each other against unwanted groping, met each other’s friends, cooked dinners, and generally enveloped each other in a cloud of niceness that they managed not to confuse with love. They didn’t see any theatre. It was the summer break.
2. in which some theatre gets somewhat reviewed
The Critic spent a long time confused about the Karen-shaped hole left in her life: why it hurt so much, considering that it was a small thing, an unserious thing, that her emotional investment in Karen had always been mostly a polite reciprocity of affection. The Critic had been wary of straight girls testing the outer borders of their sexual territory, and Karen, she had thought, had not been entrusted with her heart quite enough to break it.
PULL QUOTE: The Critic had been wary of straight girls testing the outer borders of their sexual territory
There was a large contingent of Australians in town for the Foreign Affairs festival. They were doing a lot of coke and felt powerful and as if all mistakes would be reversible, because it is the one quality of summer that it gives the illusion that time is in limitless supply.
At Foreign Affairs, Angélica Liddell, Spanish performer with a reputation for intelligent provocation, presented You Are My Destiny / Lo Stupro di Lucrezia, a performance that left everyone unconvinced about the validity of said reputation. A work about the rape of Lucrezia, and her subsequent suicide in order to restore the honour of the men of her house, was presented in the interpretive key of “rape trauma is a love story,” a statement which would be unsettlingly problematic even in locales less progressive than Berlin.
There was one memorable sequence, in which the male drummers leaned against the back wall in a half-squat that quickly became uncomfortable to even watch, let alone endure. Liddell, the director of the piece, wiped their brows, kissed them, and in other ineffective ways made gestures toward alleviating their suffering, all the while berating Lucrezia for forcing this ordeal. The show of power was brutal and chilling, and there was something there, some kernel of a statement about women and men and society. Mostly, however, Liddell presented an overlong show that mashed together, without a clear structuring logic screaming women, a choir of semi-naked drummers, Christian imagery, Ukranian church songs, little children, and Venetian architecture, in which beer was poured over female bodies, panties tossed into the audience, and all was angry and inarticulate. The final bow was followed, in the foyer, by a number of patrons selling off their tickets to Liddell’s subsequent shows.
PULL QUOTE: The show of power was brutal and chilling
The Critic found herself endlessly distracted by the murky blend of hatred and self-hatred that permeated the piece, something she found distinctly southern European, something from a time before post–Second Wave feminism. Liddell’s women had an anger that spinned towards and away from themselves like a confused compass, and this, she thought, had a lot to do with having one’s female identity formed in societies that haven’t sorted out either their religious, undemocratic, or patriarchal heritage, and mostly weren’t putting any effort to do so, either. It is not exactly that northern Europe was post-patriarchal bliss, but, in Berlin, where every woman wore short hair, thus making the numerous playgrounds and parks appear to teem with dads and lesbians, it always seemed like there was a paved way forward, slow but somewhat certain, that did not involve self-immolation and such.
Besides, the Critic was a big believer in utopian separatism wherever possible, in creating better, easier worlds. She grew up watching her older friends and family burn out on the barricades against right-wing ills, ranging from everyday sexism to Croatia’s war crimes—there were journalists murdered for writing about massacres that occured, that everyone already knew about—and their lives slowly infested with fatigue, aggression, a fixation on the enemy. This is why she came to Australia, to not have her life structured by hate, her identity defined in opposition to something.
To women who complained about men, she always suggested: date women. They thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.
1. in which the Critic is revealed to be a cynical arsehole
More than other art forms — except perhaps cinema — theatre contextualises relationships, because no other art is as suited to dates.
Indeed, there are many advantages of taking a prospective partner to the theatre, especially when one is a critic. First, the glamour of what for most people, is a rare and expensive treat. Second, immense tactical ground can be conquered by taking a date to an opening night: the canapés, the free booze, the greetings and kissings and casual introductions to an entire theatre industry. For the slightly exasperated theatre worker, this is just another evening spent at work. For the date, the combination of high art, buildings of cultural significance, and being introduced to people they have seen on TV (even if only in an advertisement or a minor role in Underbelly), is a serious portion of sexiness, effortlessly delivered. Plus, unlike book launches and gallery openings, theatre openings are sure to be fun. Most of the attendees, after all, are professional entertainers.
It is less known, but no less important, that taking a prospective partner to witness a work of art shines a helpful light into their psyche, like an early warning of troubles to come. Traumas that may take years of ordinary, uneventful existence to come to the fore, may erupt in the theatre on the second date.
Let's take Karen.
Not even a disgruntled critic would walk out on a date night.
The first crack in the tentative romance appeared after the Critic took Karen to see August: Osage County, Pulitzer-winner by Tracy Letts. It was a rather dim production, whose only intervention into the play was to illuminate its shortcomings, and the Critic patiently bided her time thinking about shopping lists and masturbation. Not even a disgruntled critic would walk out on a date night. Karen, unfortunately, was greatly moved by the entire affair. The two left the theatre in vastly diverging moods — the Critic rethinking her career choices, Karen moved and vulnerable.
Here we arrive to the perilous moment so well known to theatre workers, so poorly understood by their dates: the aftermath of a bad show. For those who see theatre for work, multiple nights a week, bad shows are an ordinary and unremarkable fact of life. Like heatwaves, blackouts, random and unprovoked cuts to arts funding, this does not make them less worth complaining about, but allows for a certain facile, routine dismissal. When theatre is attended four, five, ten times a week, and on industry concessions, there is no investment in liking everything. And the more professional the theatre worker is, the more it becomes a matter of personal integrity to call a dud a dud…
… all of which is a long-winded plea for mercy for the Critic, as we return to the situation that unfolded outside the theatre, in which Karen said, with a shaky voice: