revew: Ava Wong Davies – Graceland
by Ava Wong Davies/
dir Anna Himali Howard, with Izzy Rabey/
design Mydd Pharo/
composer & sound design Anna Clock/
co-produced with Sister/
09 Feb – 11 Mar//
a horrifying sentence
‘Self-possession. To be in possession of oneself. That’s the only thing really.’
– Angela Carter, journal, 1972
When she knew she was dying, Angela Carter did what a lot of people do when they know they are dying. Carter planned her own funeral in detail: the music, the readings. And so on. In the biography, The Invention of Angela Carter, Edmund Gordon unravels the events of Carter’s life, with the thesis that Carter was self-mythologising – painting a picture of herself for others’ benefit – and for her own. I don’t know about you but I understand myself through the stories I tell myself. I can’t just be a creature, surviving by acting; I have a rich internal life (I tell myself) and my essential self is acting and that essential self has a character that cannot be eradicated.
It is rewarding to indulge in the myth of a soul. Sometimes I feel I am outside of myself but at least my soul is always buried inside this vessel I was given on day one and I do my best to look after. I don’t think Graceland invests much in the myth of the soul. Nina’s body is at risk – what use would a soul be, had it nowhere to live? There isn’t time. Nina lives outside of herself.
We meet Nina eating. People eat in Graceland. We meet Nina at a barbecue, eating a burger, her face smeared with ketchup and grease. In Graceland, people drip with food more than once. We do have bodies and it is important to attempt to nourish and protect them. When she is most coupled with her body, eating and drinking and among friends, she meets him. He describes himself as ‘a poet’.
‘How can a person be a poet?’ Nina is right, of course; they can’t. Nina knows a poet is not a person. And the person, the man, she is meeting is inhuman. He is truly a monster because he is an omen and because he refuses to allow others personhood and in doing so he discards his own. The man is not a person, but a poet. The world is his material and so he tells stories about it and forces others into his stories. He becomes the master of Nina’s existence because he is her landlord, ultimately her author, twisting her into whichever poetic form he deems appropriate, pruning her when she becomes unruly.
Stories, words, sentences are powerful. Nina is outside of herself. When she is telling her story – telling it to us, she is remaking herself. She is wresting herself out of this man’s story by telling her story herself. Nina is interrupted by the horror of her situation. More than once, she cuts herself off before the end of a sentence. Uttering a thought is to make it concrete – her story is a great exhalation, and once it is in the air, who knows what those rogue currents might spin themselves into, what images they might form and what pity they might inspire. Above anything, I think Nina’s story is an instrument for – and I mean the act of telling the story itself – an instrument with which she proves her own dignity. However she has been used, she is a person after all, and she is worthy of dignity.
Even when she cannot – dare not – articulate it to herself, Nina knows she is living falsely. ‘I want to scream, so I shake my head,’ she says. Very early on, actually. It is a horrifying sentence.
There is a certain kind of play with which I am terribly bored. I won’t give you examples, but you’ll be able to think of some, I’m sure. They begin with a couple, or with a single person, and the couple meet and they have a relationship of some kind and some quirky things happen and some difficult things happen. And then they decide, or feel they have to decide, whether they are going to stay together. This usually happens at the climax of the play, and the play may decide not to show us the result of their decision (it may even split into parallel universes and show us different options). The crisis point in their relationship happens at the climax of the play because this genre of play assumes we the audience are invested in the monogamous couple-bond. For some plays, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the relationship.
When I am at my most pithy (which is often) I say these plays about couples are always about reproduction. Even when the characters are gay, if they are invested only in preserving the couple, they are preserving the coercive material conditions which make coupling the only viable option.
Graceland is a play which understands the violence of these assumptions. Nina’s parents are proud that she has found ‘a good man.’ She’s found her partner, she’s found the man who can look after her now. She doesn’t have to pay rent but they split the bills. The man makes her life easier financially, in exchange for devouring her personhood, and eroding her free will. ‘No more games,’ he tells her at the start of their relationship – being single is unserious. Nina’s desire and the imperative to couple fold into the same thing.
Without him, she is a disappointment, the control she has over her material existence is less. But when she is without him, she is more able to live – less as risk of literal, physical, and spiritual, death. When he leaves her, her life and soul are saved. She is free of the violent imperative to be coupled and finally she is able to rebuild herself.
Why do we tell stories, and why do we tell stories about ourselves? Haha, good question innit? Why do you think?
Angela Carter was looking for a way of owning her life. Throughout her life, I mean. Her whole body of work is pushing back at what a woman in her time period was expected to be. For Carter, the story told by her funeral was her final work – her final opportunity to compose an image of herself, of who she was to others, of how her life and work fit into the world. Carter’s funeral-story was a part of the punctuation which gave her life context, and so meaning.
I am thinking about love stories, stories in general, and the stories which are how we understand history. Stories are a process by which we negate the present – placing it in the continuum of history: events which cause events, which cause events. The love story, for example, can be a way of reinforcing the immortal, natural assumption that people must form pairs. Telling a story about yourself can be a way of asserting your soul – if you are part of that endless, immortal coil of history, then your soul and your self are immortal too – never mind what is happening in the present. Nina’s story is not an ending, but a kind of exorcism and a kind of birth. She is covered in mud, and she is showered clean. Nina’s self has been so persistently dissolved into the relationship and the man’s violence that she needs to tell her story in order to extract herself from it like a loose thread.
Every time we tell a story about ourselves we are born again, at its ending. For Nina, telling the story and saving her life become the same thing.
title image edited from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30478819@N08/50504035347