[Warning – contains mild spoilers]
It’s not enough for Daniel Kitson any more, that much is clear.
The last time he was onstage at the Lyttleton is was with It’s Always Right Now Until It’s Later, a story show in which two lives passed brushed briefly past one another at a bus-stop as they murmured in opposite directions from cradle to grave. Kitson brought his talent to illuminating twinkling moments of quiet significance in their lives against a low-hanging forest of light bulbs. It was a Kitson show par excellence, definitively Kitson, the smell of… Daniel Kitson. But that’s clearly not enough for him any more.
Analog.Ue tells a very similar story to It’s Always Right Now…, once again we have two characters, a man and a woman, once again we have a kind of thwarted meeting that brings the temporal scale of lives lived into focus. Once again ‘This is not a love story’, but now as then the themes are love, tenderness and a feeling of reaching outwards over the unconquerable distances which are the subtle and unspoken background to our lives.
This time it’s the story of Thomas Tappler, an 80 year-old man committing his failing memories to a bank of reel-to-reel players in a garage in 1977, and Trudy Livingstone, who’s spent her life working in a call centre for reasons that will make your heart sigh a little bit. As it’s supposed to.
The story is as replete with carefully polished detail as ever. The wonderful banalities and personal sanctities of everyday life are laid out with wit and warmth, with enough spiky bits and swears to keep the syrupy tide of sentimentality well leveed. Thomas’s foul-mouthed wife Gertie, a constant presence at the story’s periphery, is a particularly beautiful creation. It’s as funny, as intelligent and as humane as you’ve doubtless come to expect. And that, Kitson has been practically screaming for almost two years now, is the fucking problem.
This phase in Kitson’s work began with the nameless show named As of 1.52pm GMT on Friday April 27th 2012, This Show Has No Title, which he premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe in (surprisingly enough) 2012. It was a show which railed against the expectations placed on its author by his cultish fanbase and the artistic establishment randy for more of ‘the fucking dignity of unwitnessed lives’ which Kitson had long excelled in, while simultaneously containing at least one story of exactly that sort. It was criticised as self-indulgent, and it was, but it was also the beginning of a serious period of internal questioning and reflexivity in Kitson’s art, which the (facetiously labelled) ‘recluse’ is living out in public in a series of deeply considered formal experiments. Kitson knows that he can do what he does better than pretty much anyone living – he doesn’t need another special prize for Best Storyteller – he needs to work out what the hell he’s going to do next. And the way he’s chosen to do that is to interrogate the functional mechanisms and emotional motivations behind a ‘Kitson show’, behind the idea of ‘Kitson-esque’, by the hipster art-crowd brand that is ‘Kitson’.
Last year’s After the Beginning . Before the End felt in some ways like a companion piece to As of 1.52pm. It seemed to explore the personal dimensions of this personal and artistic crisis with a particular focus on the peculiar affluent solitude Kitson has fashioned for himself in his mid-30’s. Thematically it explored the unreliability of memory and the problematic credibility of story-telling. Formally it toyed in the most tentative fashion with live music, with Kitson controlling a series of electronic loops to underscore one of the more stately and cooler of his narratives. Though aesthetic clues were few and far between, there was a detectable gulf between the hairy, slightly hulking Ben Folds fan that brought his first theatre shows into the world in the mid-2000’s, and this shorn 30-something with his bleepy synth and ATP-chic. Later in the year Tree saw him bringing in a second performer (!!), and if the story could have just as easily been told by Kitson alone, it demonstrated a continued commitment to shaking things up a little.
Analog.Ue goes one further than this by removing Kitson’s live vocal presence from the equation altogether, with the story told instead by a recording split across 46 separate recording devices. Kitson’s voice has been captured on the magnetic tape of vintage reel-to-reel machines and aging Dictaphones, and he moves in resolute silence across the stage as he arranges, powers up, inspects and repairs the whirring decks that are his avatar. ‘A brave move’, seemed to be the press consensus from the first run in St. Anne’s Warehouse, New York, with many critics disappointed that England’s greatest professional talker wouldn’t be talking to them at all, that they were instead to enjoy a sort of elaborate audio-book massaged into life by a self-trained amateur technician.
Kitson is playing a sort of game, of course. The mouldered tape machines perfectly compliment the love of old and damaged things that permeates this narrative and many of his others, as well as the DIY, Disintegration Loop-y, hauntological aesthetic that is a regular visual reference point. The clicking, glowing and whirring of the salvaged machines is as warm, weighty and satisfying as a slab of vintage vinyl. Far from pouring himself out of the show, he has instead created dozens of physical symbols for his work and wound his voice around their spools.
Changes have apparently been made to the script since the first performances in New York, and my best guess would be that they involve the addition of a framing narrative which places the work in the context of Kitson’s current artistic and personal situation. Whenever they were added, they provide an access route into the narrative that feels at once welcoming and welcome and a bit of a cop-out. There’s a sense that the story, as good as it is, isn’t quite good enough to stand on its own; that like the kernel at the centre of As of 1.52pm, it is too paradigmatically ‘Kitson’ to pass without comment. That, however cleverly it has been presented, it’s just a bit ‘done’.
That’s the theme which runs through Kitson’s freshly recorded interludes – that somewhere, sometime, his artistic processes began to turn in on themselves and generate a minor crisis. That too many of the small and treasured memories which Kitson stitches together into shows have now been paraded before an audience and that the artist fears he is becoming something of a recording machine himself – a device for observing, noting down and spooling back. This is his most personal show since 66a Church Road, filled with slides of Kitson’s home and his childhood and his friends, his own life constantly getting in the way of the story he is apparently trying to unwind.
One of the best and most poignant moments in As of 1.52pm involved Kitson’s description of his fear of failure, of not producing the expected hit. He spoke of sitting in the middle of the night in his underpants staring at a blank screen and trying to force genius onto it. There’s something of that message here too, refined into a visual language of labour. Kitson relates how he’d envisaged this show to be a great physical effort, hoping to expunge his doubts concerning his role in life with the sweat from his brow. But it’s essentially the same message. This isn’t easy. This is extremely hard. I know I make this look easy, but it’s not. It’s hard, and it’s getting harder.
If it sounds solipsistic (it is solipsistic) then it’s an extremely moving and considered piece of self-indulgence that never forgets to entertain and uplift even as it deconstructs. Kitson has paused the tape on his career and he’s running back through it. The process of disassembling and formally interrogating the paradox of the publicity shy man on the giant fuck-off stage and of the secret special moments made tawdry with repetition continues and perhaps concludes with Analog.Ue.
It feels like we’re approaching a watershed moment in Kitson’s career – and can only hope that wherever he goes next is as remarkable as where he’s been.