Saturday, 28 July 2007

On Ambiguity

When we did Shiver at Theatre503 earlier this year, I was staggered by the range of interpretations audience members brought to it, even at the simple level of plot. Plot is usually the one thing designed to be unambiguously understood, but I was quite pleased. I had my own interpretation, but in directing it I was careful not to cancel out two or three other possibilities of which I was aware. As a result, people came up with all sorts of crackpot theories. It was excellent. Let me tell you why.

The play turns on the arrival of Jacob on the doorstep of Christina one summer evening. She hasn't seen or heard from him for seventeen years, so this sudden descent on her threshold comes as a bit of a shock. And the last time she saw him, she left him for dead. So there are three obvious possibilities right from the outset: a) it's really him; b) he really died and this is an imposter; and c) he really died and this is his ghost. The tricky structure of the piece, in which the action occasionally stops and rewinds to a slightly earlier point, before progressing in a different direction, helps to retain all these possibilities and adds a further level of ambiguity at the level of what's actually going on.

For me and the actors, the truth was unambigously answer a), but we had terrific fun in rehearsals finding ways of maintaining that line consistently while not doing anything that would rebut those drawn to b) or c). Because of course you can't play "ambiguous", you have to play something definite. That something is, in Max Stafford Clark's terms, a series of actions or intentions - to provoke, to remind, to seduce - none of which necessarily give definite answers to the question about what's going on. (One day I'll post more fully on my rehearsal process. For the moment let me say that I emphatically don't, a la MSC, spend a fortnight sitting round a table, actioning. Nonetheless, his ideas can be extremely useful even if, as here, they're nothing more than shorthand.)

More often than not, whatever action an actor is playing will give a subtext that can either enrich or traduce the piece, depending on whether the action is well-chosen. But in Shiver, the plot became the subtext and the subtext became the plot, creating (at its best) a very powerful and productive atmosphere of uncertainty in a piece heavily concerned with memory, its retention and repression. And so uncertainty about precisely what was happening led (at its best) to meditations on the reliability of our perceptions, our memories and the idea that there might be a truth of which we can get to the bottom. None of them new ideas, perhaps, but approached in new ways and resulting in new conversations in the bar afterwards. That's why it was excellent.

But there was a slight problem: it wasn't much fun. Although the characters were likeable and thoroughly three-dimensional the whole carapace tended to get in the way a bit, making the piece seem cold and lacking a point of entry for the audience. There was some fun in there, but people were concentrating so hard on the ideas and the atmosphere that they didn't tend to pick up on it. Some didn't mind at all, but others did and I was one of them. I don't for a moment believe theatre has to be fun, but I do believe it has to let its audience in. My current way in of choice is fun. What happens once the audience are in is another matter.

With Man Across the Way, we also have a thread of ambiguity, but not as driving force, rather as central question, or rather, several questions - about the identity and status of the eponymous "man". Oh, all right, since you're so nice to me I'll tell you. It's not as if the publicity hasn't already. The man may or may not have been involved in a major terrorist attack on the city of Glasgow (much bigger than the recent one which suddenly made the piece - which was written before anyone had heard of John Smeaton - eerily topical). I hope we don't close down either possibility. But we've discovered that the best ways to keep both balls in the air also happen to be the best ways of dynamising the scenes in which he appears: ie, making him tough-willed, almost bolshy, in his exchanges with the cops. So that's handy.

Ideally, then, when it's working, the piece will cause a bit of trouble for the left's easy demonisation of the police and easy sympathy for those bullied by them. I'm not saying I don't think the police are a bunch of fascist bastards, I'm just saying it's not quite that simple. And it's not as if the show comes down firmly on the side of the police and argues vociferously for the extension of maximum detention periods to ninety days. Au contraire. Like all good plays, it gets in between the cracks in everyone's arguments and tries to create room for itself. And at the centre of that process is the fact that we, the public, very often don't know. We don't know why the police raid this house or that bookshop; we don't know why they pick up this doctor or that engineer. We don't know. They probably have their reasons, but are they good enough?

It also has jokes. Alright, "jokes" is probably a bit strong (who can think of plays with actual jokes in? Dennis Kelly's After the End springs to mind; what else?), but there are a few good laughs, which come mostly in scenes or on lines which aren't at all ambiguous. I'm realising that ambiguity is not particularly good at creating laughter; it creates a cerebral atmosphere of suspension that earth-bound laughter disappears beneath. Ambiguity can't descend to laughter - but laughter can ascend to ambiguity. The politics of Can of Worms are completely unambiguous, but the laughter becomes increasingly troubling as the piece progresses. Not being a clown show, Man Across the Way dabbles less in the dark art of laughter (I'm still holding back on the Harry Potter references) but when it does it is often of a similarly Janus-faced nature.

I worry that talking too much about what I'm trying to achieve will spoil the shows. Please forget everything I've written when you enter the theatre. Obliviate!

Sunday, 15 July 2007

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Blogger

It's time for the traditional blogger's greeting: it's been a while. Sorry about that.

I'm in London rehearsing the Edinburgh shows and generally trying to make things happen blah blah blah and of course that leaves precious little time for those two givens of everyday life at home: blogging and running. The sharp-eyed among you will have read the title and spotted already what direction this post is going in.

Last week I ran in company for the first time in about ten years. When I was at sixth form I used to run with Jonny Biggs, who wasn't quite as quick as me and enabled me to feel good about myself. Last week I ran with William, the younger brother of Nick, the actor from Man Across the Way with whom I stayed the week. William's got a 33 minute 10k time under his belt and he's in pretty good shape right now. I had an operation a couple of months ago and I'm only just starting to get back into it after a layoff of close to two years. Never before has a run left me with stomach pains; I can now see how it's possible to incur vomiting through running.

So now I'm back to running alone. I'm afraid it's slightly higher up my list of priorities than blogging, but then, I'm in control of the whereabouts of my shoes in a way I'm not of wireless internet access provision. And every time I run now, I get more excited about the next show I want to make: a one-man adaptation of (you guessed, right?) The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, performed entirely on treadmill. 10k will be covered in the fifty(ish)-minute show.

If I learned anything from my run with William, it's that the unsung muscle of the long-distance runner is the one involved in breathing. (I've done enough voice training to remember its name, but it's better to remain silent and have people think you're stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.) The excellent Runners' World magazine frequently distinguishes between different effort levels by considering what sort of vocal effort you're capable of. Speaking full sentences? That's a fairly light run. Unable to get out more than a syllable? Maximum effort. Hitting the top note in Nessun Dorma? You're just not trying.

So one of the interesting things about making the show will be the attempt to taper the rhythms of the text to fit what I'm capable of as a performer - as a runner - by any given point in an (admittedly fairly gentle) 10k. And to do that as artlessly as possible, to explore the rhythms of speech dictated by a given level of fatigue without trying to disguise that I'm out of breath. It's going to have to be written on the trail. And I don't think I'll be able to perform it six times a week.

We had the movement director in on Man Across the Way rehearsals yesterday and in the course of knocking some ideas about there was a period where the cast were darting about the space at a preposterous level of energy, panting for breath. Genuine fatigue is interesting, along with nudity and juggling, as an example of something which suddenly reveals the performer instead of, or at least as well as, the character. The intelligent show, when dabbling in these dark arts (and that's the only Harry Potter reference you'll get from me today) will figure out a way of acknowledging this, sewing it into the fabric of the piece. Not quite sure how I'm going to do that, but that's just part of the fun I've got planned for the autumn.

Somewhat perverse, I know, to get carried away with this idea when I'm opening two completely separate shows next week, but that's the kind of guy I am. And the other two are coming along nicely, cheers. Can of Worms is now in need of previews; it's gone beyond the point (which always comes, and comes sooner with clown) where rehearsing without an audience is of any use at all. We're ready to sprint for the tape.

And Man Across the Way seems to be shaping up, too. Today we had the lighting designer, the excellent Ben Pacey, in the room trying to figure out solutions to some insoluble problems with a key section at the midpoint of the play, and producing his normal, unusually high, level of genius. Yesterday we had the movement director helping us come up with some suitably mad ideas for the same difficult section (it's a minute long and we've spent the last day and a half working on it). And the day before was one of those lovely days when you ask a series of difficult questions of scenes, to which your answer starts out as "I have no idea", and you wind up making discoveries that transform the competent and workmanlike into the really rather good. It was one of those days when I really felt like I was doing my job. We've still got a lot of miles to cover but we're clocking up the miles at the right pace and we haven't hit the wall yet. Race you to Edinburgh!

Thursday, 12 July 2007


In a cafe the other night Sarah and I played a very old and very silly board game called Ego. We never really figured out how the game was supposed to be played, but we had great fun playing around with the "angel" and "devil" cards, on which were solemnly printed "positive" and "negative" attributes. Several of the positives were sufficiently faint to be considered damning, and a fair few of the negatives were attractive at least to some demographics - "decent" springs to mind in the former category, "eccentric" or "naughty" in the latter. I think the game was designed for tipsy thirtysomethings at rebellious tupperware parties.

But anyway. After growing tired of analysing one another, we used the cards to generate characters as one might in an eighties role playing game, and one of them has stayed with me. We drew three cards and the combination that stuck was "enlightened" and "eager". Who is this person? Enlightenment is a state associated with peace, calm, stillness, but I like the idea of reaching a sort of enlightenment and being eager to go further, or perhaps to share it with others. It's nice, that is.

It's Socrates. Maybe Brecht's Galileo, maybe even Buchner's Danton, but it's certainly Socrates. The third card was something like "principled", and that's a direct fit for none of those characters. But "principled, enlightened and eager". That strikes me as a state worth striving for.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007


Terry Eagleton reckons that "there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life." He goes on to demonstrate why Amis, Rushdie, Hare et les autres eminences grises don't fit this category - in the case of the first two, because they've become reactionaries and in the case of Hare, because he's become a tinkerer rather than a radical, the Claudio Ranieri of theatrical-political intervention.

It's a depressing analysis and one instinctively reacts against it. In the theatre, at least, surely we're in the midst of a period of unusually high political commitment? What about all this docudrama; what about the last few plays at the Court, what about the current regime at the Soho? Then, reading between the lines of Eagleton's article, one realises why nobody qualifies as a radical nowadays: it's in the detail of that phrase "question the foundations". In legal terms, today's writers get off on a technicality.

By "the foundations", you see, he means capitalism. As usual, cry the wags. So DH Lawrence qualifies for Eagleton's list of radicals because his work "denounced 'the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition'": i.e., he attacks capitalism from the individualist right rather than the collectivist left. Presumably because Eagleton likes Lawrence, he's able to pick up on the moments he's not just hammering on about sex and find the key moments when he's instead resenting people for wanting money rather than sex. (Just because this is a simplistic reading of Lawrence shouldn't be taken as a dismissal of his work. It's just a dismissal of the idea that he's any kind of radical.)

So no-one's questioning capitalism nowadays. This is really a variation on that old plaint, "the left lost its way after '89". And it's a load of cobblers. No-one's questioning capitalism using the old tools of Marxist dialectic, sure, but is that surprising given the drubbing that dialectic had taken by '89? Look at it this way: in 1989 a discredited and corrupt system fell and many millions of people were liberated as a result. Only at the symbolic level did this in truth have anything to do with left against right, but the symbolism, as so often, was far more powerful than the reality.

Since then the left's battles have been fought on a series of single issues; rather than challenging the system we've sought to mitigate its worst degredations. Taking on Big Pharma, the leading polluters or even PFIs all involve questioning whether the profit motive is the most suitable way of engineering human welfare: the difference is that the argument proceeds by example rather than by doctrine.

But we're not challenging the foundations, so we're not radical. Well, perhaps. But perhaps now is not the time for radicalism, but for small actions with big repercussions. Let the dots be joined gradually, rather than the whole damn thing being inked in by theorists and technocrats in advance of any attempts at action.

This may be symptomatic relief, rather than cure. Fine. You can't cure a guy who's in love with his disease. All you can do is mitigate the symptoms and gently point out their point of origin, until he's prepared to listen. That, my friends, is the sadly reduced role of the "radical" left in modern political discourse. We've the Soviets to blame for that: they had their chance and they handled it atrociously and unforgiveably. Like it or not, we have to live with their lunacy having hardened the right against good sense, with their defeat having accustomed the right to the taste of victory. This is not a time for us to be radical, angry and big. This is a time for us to be good, and right.

As regards the place of literature in all of this: perhaps literature also got pragmatic. Perhaps writers listened to the atrocious self-belief of the world-changers of the sixties and seventies and thought, I can get something done, but went for a more modest goal than the wholesale change of society. Perhaps we live in a time where grand narratives are viewed with too much suspicion to be useful tools for change and perhaps the true radicals are the people whose ideology is unswerving but whose tactics are eminently adaptable. If you're not winning at half-time, you have to make a change.

Sunday, 8 July 2007

The Protocols of the Elders of Greenpeace

When not being the smug snarking git noted earlier, David Baddiel did say one interesting thing, albeit by mistake. Intending to talk about climate change deniers he accidentally said "holocaust deniers", before going on the run from his Freudian slip: of course climate change denial is not as bad as holocaust denial. But is it?

Climate change, at least from the current perspective, is much much less terrible than the holocaust. The holocaust was a planned and systematic extermination of a race of people. Climate change's victims will be drawn essentially at random from throughout humanity. No comparison.

Well, not quite. Climate change's victims will not be randomly distributed: they'll be drawn overwhelmingly from among the world's poor. The exacerbation of climate change, and its denial, is being overwhelmingly carried out by the world's rich. All they have to do to get away with it is buy a house on top of a hill, paid for with the money they made selling the underclasses the means to kill themselves.

But hold on, Dan. There has been no Wansee conference here; there is no intent to kill, no intent to exterminate a race or a class. So Esso and Shell aren't, I suppose, as bad as the Nazis. Through gritted teeth, I'll give you that one. But will that matter when there are six million dead? Or more? I put it to you: not if you lose your family.

Still, there's no equivalence between Hitler and some weasly CEO: he's pretty bad but, I grant you, not quite that bad. Drawn though I am by the call of rhetoric to suggest that he is.

But denial is a different storm altogether. At least holocaust denial, insidious and vile though it is, won't make the holocaust any worse. Climate change deniers effect a deferral of action on climate change, thus ensuring its continuation. Holocaust deniers are apologists; climate change deniers are perpetrators. It's as simple as that. The texts of the "scientists" who, in the pay of Esso and Shell, seek to quibble with the overwhelming evidence that we're hurtling towards disaster are, as far as I'm concerned, morally equivalent to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And that isn't just rhetoric.

The Hips Don't Lie

Flipping the television last night between The Thick of It and, er, 100 Greatest War Movies, I stumbled upon coverage of the Live Earth concert. There was something exhilirating about switching on prime time TV and finding in progress a semi-serious discussion about climate change. It would have been better if David Baddiel wasn't involved - he's carved such a niche for himself as "the comedian with a degree from Cambridge University" that he's forgotten for several years that he's also supposed to be funny and instead comes across as a smug snarking git - but it was nice that it was happening.

Now obviously, the whole thing was an exercise in hypocrisy and it's immediately clear why it's been dubbed by unkinder souls than myself (oh, alright, sharper-witted ones) "private jets against climate change". But if this discussion between Jonathan Ross, David Baddiel and A Proper Scientist wasn't simply a "put the kettle on" moment, then this exercise will also have fulfilled its objective of doing more to raise awareness and understanding of climate change than any previous PR for good green practice.

Will we do anything about it? When I flipped back later, Shakira was on. Makes you wonder if the planet is worth saving.

Saturday, 7 July 2007

Give me a sweetie

A few days ago on here I was nice about the National Theatre. Yesterday I was nice about Yes Minister.

I've a fundrasing drive going on at the moment in a desperate attempt to compensate for an ACE-shaped hole in my budget for Man Across the way, and as part of it my beautiful wife sent letters to 250 theatre celebrities. Yesterday I got a cheque from Nicholas Hytner, today I got one from Derek Fowlds. It is the policy of this blog, in a spirit of fitting optimism, to be nice about everyone with a chequebook.

Which in a roundabout way includes James Purnell, our new culture secretary, who everyone seems to think is so far doing a good job. What a nice man. I bet he's great with children and animals.

Oh alright, I admit it. I remain to be convinced. Just because a man likes the theatre doesn't necessarily mean he'll do a great job running the whole national cultural infrastructure. I know loads of season ticket holders at Middlesbrough, for example, who'd do a ghastly job of managing the team.

But Purnell has now given a new speech, which might help readers of this blog to forget the one to the IPPR I so cruelly dismantled a week ago. It's much better, almost as happy clappy as Blair's earlier this year, but in this case with something to say. I've had no luck in unearthing the full text, so we'll have to take Charlotte Higgins' word for it and assume she's read the whole thing and not just the press release. It's moderately encouraging.

Excellence, he says, is going to be the main criterion from now on. I'd like so see how he plans on measuring it: peer review seems the only sensible strategy, and there are obvious difficulties even with that. But still. The chances a piece of art has of being good art seems like a very good place to start when formulating an arts funding strategy. He's wrong to say that the access battle has been won, but one of the best ways of widening access is to make really terrific work that people want to see. His example, Punchdrunk's Faust, is a good one.

This brings me to the most surprising news story of the week: Michael Billington in "not talking total arse" shocker. Billington argues fairly persuasively that we do in fact have to continue considering access in the arts world. There's no point in making great work if no more than the same seven people come to see it every time.

This means creating work that will appeal to demographics other theatres can't reach, with all of the attendant problems that brings. Because of course we can't create work in bad faith; that will only lead to bad work. We just have to hope that our beliefs about what is good are shared by the people we manage to get through the door. The root problem then, is not a lack of diversity in the audiences, but a lack of diversity in the directors and theatre managers. There have been massive strides on this in the last ten years or so, but the vast majority of us are still white, middle class and university-educated. In having been working class for about the first fourteen years of my life, I'm mildly divergent from the norm, but not all that much.

So how do we get a real reflection in our profession of the society to whom we profess to speak? I have to come back to youth and community work. As I've said before, this stuff is not a waste of time or money. It's about the future.

But there's an awful lot of bad, tokenist box-tickery going on in this sector, I hear you cry. So there is. And the solution is simple. Put the emphasis on excellence. Inclusion is not a de facto good if what you're included in is rubbish. There's no merit in having been in the Leeds United squad; youth and community work can and should be encouraged to excel. I'm not a believer in entering kids into drama competitions and whatnot; I'm a great believer in doing good work with them and some of my best work is done there. If I ever hear about this bloody job in York (the board meeting to discuss whether they can afford to pay my wages was on Thursday and I'm waiting for the phone to ring: predictions welcome) I hope to continue doing more.

So Purnell may be onto a good thing in putting the emphasis on excellence. But one can't help but feel he's pouring honey into one ear and poison into the other. He's guarded where it most counts: he admits that he doesn't hold the purse strings on this one, and admits it's going to be a tough round. And of course he's right. He can sing the praises of the arts all he likes, but it will only really count when he convinces not us, who are well-known to already have a high enough opinion of our value, but the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. It's all very well telling your child he's a good boy. What he wants to know is: are you going to give him a sweetie?

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Nobody likes a good laugh more than I do. Except perhaps my wife. And some of her friends.

Yesterday was not a good day. From mid-July to mid-September I'll be out of commission working on shows which, thanks to the lack of munificence currently manifest in Grants for the Arts, will not pay me a penny. So this month whatever frugal pittance I scrape together has to last me the next three. And because I'm, like reeeelly good at education and community work, that wasn't looking so far-fetched as it sounds. Those who rail against excessive public expenditure on arts projects in school and community settings forget two things: it's an investment in creating audiences for the future. And more importantly, that money is subsidising artists, who can't really be expected to make work for 365 days solid. And when it's good work, it's good money, and those artists get to take two shows to Edinburgh and live to tell the tale.

So it is desperately frustrating and upsetting when a school decides out of the blue that, no, it doesn't, after all, want an artist to come in to work with its kids for a few days. And they're sure he won't mind if they let him know, via his project manager, in his last week and a bit of potential earning time, on the eve of his attendance on their august institution in the middle of fucking nowhere. And no, he won't be getting the money anyway. So he'll have to sell his car if he wants to survive the summer. That's not the sort of news a chap wants to hear.

I feel like I've been mugged.

So it's in times like these that my thoughts turn to comedy, balm for the soul, or chicken soup, or whatever. I mean, seriously, whoever said comedy could change the world, when it's the first place we all go to get cheered up when the world is getting us down? Whenever I'm a bit gloomful I tend to put on Yes Minister, and the fact that yesterday Sarah somehow persuaded me to watch Panic Room instead probably explains why I didn't manage to get to sleep until I'd followed it up with three episodes of The West Wing. Panic Room's great, by the way. David Fincher is a much undersung director, considerably less well-known than any one of his excellent films, and Panic Room stacks right up alongside Fight Club and Se7en. It's less tricksy than either, and a much smaller story, but it's a brilliant conceit brilliantly executed. And it's got Academy Award Winner Forest Whitaker in it, who's super.

But we were talking about comedy, which doesn't change the world, not IMDB, which has. Just look at the success the Berlin satirical cabarets had in preventing the rise of the Nazi party for illustration of that. Spitting Image only served to egg Thatcher on and what did Beyond the Fringe really achieve aside from revolutionising the haircuts of the young?

But maybe Beyond the Fringe is a bad place to start. It should be fairly obvious that it didn't have a great deal to do with the downfall of the MacMillan government, despite the old sod being at the victim's end of some fairly unkind cuts. But Beyond the Fringe, now that I think about it, actually did achieve something. It achieved the legitimisation of a particular attitude to authority, viz, a disrespectful attitude. Respect for authority wasn't the only sacred cow it took a bite from, but that was the biggie. Consciously or unconsciously, the mainstream arts and particularly comedy had always retained a basic sense of the world as run by decent people for decent people; in its core one could always find affection and optimism. Beyond the Fringe was the beginning of savagery in comedy, the beginning of comedy as a cri de couer about the world, as an outlet for anger.

And as we trust our leaders less and less, we use satire more and more. Blair must be the most satirised Prime Minister in history, more even than Thatcher. Which is cause and which is effect? Or, more likely, is there a feedback loop here?

I should state now that I'm a great lover of satire. Yes Minister is one of my favourite TV shows of all time, Being There is the best film I've seen in ages and my favourite Howard Barker plays are the early ones. I posted about Angels in America the other day; another thing I love about that is the way it imbues satire with magic and sees politically-inspired ire take flight. Yes, I love satire.

I'm even trying to make some. Can of Worms, the clown show I'm making for Edinburgh this year, can very easily be seen as satire: if "engages" is not too strong a word, it engages with the politics of secret interrogations and the official obfuscation of such. It's all performed in the broadest possible clown/physical comedy and is frequently extremely silly, even inane, so those seeking incisive analysis and reasoned engagement should look elsewhere. It is a cri de coeur, in a long tradition of cris de coeur. Is that the right plural?

The show grew from a wish to explore clown's potential for political engagement. I've heard it said that clown cannot possibly engage with political realities because a clown will subvert whatever is put in front of him. Make a clown a socialist and he will fuck it up. The problems with this position are so obvious it seems silly to even bother pointing them out, but people are doctrinaire on issues like this, so point them out I will. A clown is an idiot, so of course he will fuck up whatever is expected of him. If you expect him to hold a political opinion, he will invariably drop it if he sees an opportunity for a laugh. So far, so good. So if you want to make a political clown show, how do you get around this problem? By taking one of two extremely deft yet somehow blindingly obvious steps.

The first and most blindingly obvious possibility is: the clown has no political position, because clowns can't hold political positions. So you put him in a context where his lack of moral engagement is a problem. All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. This is the basic strategy of 473, the first scene in Can of Worms: simple, trusting recruit 473 is put through his paces by a maniac torturer, and learns the ropes rather too well... you get the idea. The clown's inability to engage in moral or political thought is the very thing on which the plot turns. It's almost too simple.

The other, slightly more sophisticated possibility, is: you cast your clowns in roles filled by people who, in real life, you're pretty sure are idiots. You think their positions are inconsistent and/or absurd. You think that what they think and do, their very raisons d'etre, are baffling and stupid. And you want to expose this in the most brutally blunt way possible. This is the strategy employed by Civil Servants, the second scene in Can of Worms. Bluff, crass, blustering civil servant Sir Roger is required to present the Government report which attempts to fudge the issues raised by the events of 473. Together with and thanks to his buffoonish deputy, he fucks it all up. Want to suggest the world is run by clowns? What better way to do it than with clowns? It's not subtle, but by God it's effective.

Part of our ongoing quest has been to stay away from the moment where it stops being funny. Pinter said "The Caretaker is funny, up to a point. Beyond that point it ceases to be funny and it was because of that point that I wrote it". Barker also, before he went off laughter altogether, was interested in the point where laughter sticks in your throat. And if you think of any comic treatment of a serious subject in feature films, novels, plays, you'll almost always find that point in there somewhere, the "and now kids, the message" point. It's often considerably more subtle than that makes it sound, and it's repeated use shows how effective it is. But we chose to stay away from it. Why?

It's the easiest thing in the world to not be funny. Not making people laugh is something we all achieve almost all of the time, especially when we're trying to make people laugh. And if we're trying to make a serious point and make it really count, we'll almost certainly try to make it in seriousness for fear it will sound snippy.

But what we're trying to do is make people laugh despite themselves, make them laugh a laugh that frightens them a little, that they know is complex and that they know they'll have to examine later, but that they can't examine just now - because they're laughing too much. That's much harder than simply turning off the tap.

So yes, I love satire. I really do. But do I believe in it? Not believe in it the way I might believe in God, but the way I might believe in Middlesbrough Football Club. That is, do I really believe it can work? Can transform the way people think? Can win the battle for hearts and minds?

Howard Brenton described an act of political theatre as like "tapping on the pipes". The message starts small, but if people believe in it it gets bigger and before you know it there's an enormous jailbreak. Like that episode of Doctor Who the other day where everyone on the planet said "Doctor" at the same time, and the Doctor miraculously stopped being a dwarfish wrinkle and turned into a sort of Christ-figure in a manner simultaneously super fun and utter, utter hokum. I like to think of political comedy in the same way (tapping on the pipes, not turning into Christ and being nonsense, although the hazard of excessive self-aggrandisement is ever-present). The message may not get far, but it might get somewhere.

Let's unpack that just a little a bit more. The idea of a "message" is a sicky one for me and many others and I don't want to be found dead in that trap. The message (see how bravely I resist packing that word safely in the cotton wool of inverted commas!) is just as likely to be a question as a call-to-arms. I like a piece of theatre, or comedy, or whatever, to leave me with something unresolved, something I have to deal with later. And I like it to make me mad keen to do so. Even Angels in America ( geek that I am, I keep mistyping that Angles in America) doesn't quite achieve that; all the pieces being neatly put back in their boxes at the end. My Child does; almost none of comedy ever does. Did I mention Can of Worms? Why not come along and let us know if we've managed it?