A Digital Body
See this article in its original home here: http://exeuntmagazine.com/features/a-digital-body/
Towards the end of my play Midnight Movie, which is currently running at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, there’s a line that goes “my body is the way it is, the way it will be till I die.” To be quite honest, I’m unhappy with that line. It will not be like this till I die. It will get much worse.
Midnight Movie started with a conversation between me and Matilda Ibini, who dramaturged the show. We met in adjoining hospital beds in Homerton Hospital. For both of us, that hospital stay was a turning point. I was born with a neurological condition that means I see in two dimensions rather than three, which makes me accident-prone. I had started getting debilitating migraines and spinal pain, which I thought was due to (being accident-prone and) fracturing one of my spinal vertebrae years before, but which people around me were beginning to suspect might be something else. Matilda and I started talking about our relationships with the internet. For us both, it was a way of being in public, a way of reaching out and making connections, when our bodies (and also civic infrastructure) would not allow us to be in public in other ways. This thought kept ticking away in my head as my health declined and I was able to work, socialise, and see theatre less and less. How could I keep up with the art form, if I wasn’t able to make it into the theatre because I’d had a migraine for five weeks straight?
As Matilda, Rachel Bagshaw, the director, and I, began developing the ideas for the show, we were frequently stymied by our own unpredictable health. We all have roughly the same pain ceiling as a tranquillised ox, but even so, we were less consistently present then we wanted to be. We realised that if we were going to make a show about the relationship between people with disabilities and the internet, we were going to need to find a way for those people to access the show, even if they weren’t able to make it to the theatre.
Our response to this challenge is here: https://royalcourttheatre.com/midnight-movie-the-digital-body/ In the show, we use the concept of a digital body, something somehow more and less substantial than a physical body, a way of being present and absent at the same time. We realised the show itself should have a digital body, some version of itself which is doesn’t need to be in the same room as you, something more lasting, more penetrating, less likely to glitch. It’s a series of essays/scary stories timed to arrive in your inbox at odd times near the end of the year. We discussed we wanted it to serve as a kind of afterlife of the show for those who have seen it.
This dovetails with a longstanding interest of mine, the afterlife of theatre, the ways shows can stay with you or disappear. A haunting is a story that stays with you, a story with an unnatural lifespan. I have now found out what’s behind the persistent pain that keeps me up in the night - a connective tissue disorder, fucking with my skin and skeleton and heart. It tends to come hand in hand with neurodivergence, such as monopsia. No one yet knows why. It has a lot of the qualities of a jump scare - pain slamming through the morning with no explanation, making me hide in the dark. It refuses to follow any established narrative of illness - you feel a bit shit, there’s some sort of crisis, and then you recover or die. When it retreats, it often doesn’t seem to be for any good reason. It comes or goes in its own ways.
I remember going to see the mother of all midnight movies, El Topo, in a cinema, not knowing anything about it except that my film-buff friend wanted to go. Watching El Topo, with a time bomb in my DNA I didn’t know about yet, was a strange experience. I remember getting angry at how obviously it flouted its own narrative rules. Did it just not give a shit? Did it not care about my time? And then it dawned on me: this film was taking aim at the idea of narrative as such. This film was trying to destroy the part of my brain that wanted to find reasons for things, that couldn’t tolerate being surprised, that needed a justification when the cowboy all in black turned into a pale, worm-like monk-hermit-religious figure.
Sometimes in life, with no warning, and for no reason it can share, something turns into something else.
I left the cinema on a high I’ve never forgotten. That acceptance, of image turning into lurid image, of melodrama becoming fable becoming half-cocked prophecy, seemed to me to be a kind of enlightenment. It was the cinematic equivalent of a zen koan - and being cinematic, it was also exuberantly trashy and stupid. I didn’t know movies could do what El Topo did.
Theatre is a riskier art form in which to present such an attack: the time pressure is so much more acute, the vulnerability of all these strangers in a room feeling things makes people more defensive when they’re passing through unfamiliar ground. But “riskier” can also mean “more exciting,” right?