Teach us to care and not to care

Lisa Hammond gets audiences thinking about disability.

The British public, long used to arbitrating on the presence or otherwise of Talent and X Factor, has now been given a say in the devising of a show. Two actors went out on to the streets with a microphone and canvassed opinion on what their forthcoming play should be about, and the resulting performance is the wryly titled No Idea. It should be stated, for the record, that one of the performers, Lisa Hammond, is what the Americans preciously call a "little person"; her partner Rachael Spence is of average height.

The pair have a knack of making each line appear box-fresh. As they present this show about a show, and road-test some of the public's ideas, there's an off-the-cuff feel of live improvisation which is actually more akin to the well-honed grooves of stand-up: this play has been carefully crafted, under the direction of Improbable's Lee Simpson.

The public's suggestions are a springboard all right, but not in the direction the public intended. In the end, the laughs are on the unsuspecting contributors, and the show turns out to be very much about them and their perceptions of Hammond and Spence. When the actors play around with gilt frames, creating objectifying snapshots of various body parts, one senses that they were not the only ones to have been "framed".

Even as you wince, you can't help but feel a teensy bit sorry for the hapless interviewees. Their accents and agendas alike are ruthlessly and, it must be said, hilariously nailed by the two performers. One passer-by gives them deeply patronising advice about starting out with free performances. In small spaces. Another simply can't imagine two women doing a comedy and being funny. A group of youngsters suggest they beef up their flimsy act with big-hitters like Davina, Beyoncé or Phil from EastEnders.

And the tricksiest of all the tricksy issues is the public's response to the pint-sized pachyderm in the room, Hammond's disability. One assumption in particular tapped a well of frustration in Hammond, which is that an undersized person must be possessed of an outsized personality. It's what she calls the "Uh-oh, Here Comes Trouble!" syndrome.

Cheeky girls

Notably there are comments about her "cheeky, cheeky face", which the pair work up into a ribald music-hall number and push into the realms of savagely funny bad taste ("See the smile/of a paedophile . . ."). When, later in the show, Hammond fesses up to the misdemeanours that her condition enables her to get away with, and notes that we, the public, accept that "the freaky girl does freaky things", we revise our laughter at her song. Would it have been bearable, let alone funny, if sung by someone of standard size?

Enthusiastic lip-service is paid to Hammond being the star of the show, but interestingly, agonisingly, when the public is asked to string a storyline together, she is given nothing whatsoever to do. It would seem we are loath to visit any kind of mishap on her, to double-dose her with misfortune. And we certainly don't see her as a romantic lead. So while Spence frets that she'll be cast in "some kind of ensemble capacity", or as a "chorus tramp", she actually gets all the action.

While she gets to do a fabulously clownish "falling in love" montage of picnics, photo-booth capers and roller-coaster rides, Hammond is given the task of staying in the apartment, making a phone call. "I observe," she says acidly, "that I have had fuck all to do in that story."

Though the show points up our hypocrisy and confusion with regard to the "dwarf or midget", it is also a warm celebration of the possible relationship between able-bodied and disabled, and the friendship between Spence and Hammond is held up as an example of best practice. Teach us to care and not to care, as T S Eliot would have it, and Spence strikes pretty much that balance towards her diminutive partner, finishing the show with a rousing chorus of "I Don't Give a Shit About You!".

The yen towards didacticism -- all that messing around with body building-blocks can feel like a theatre-in-education workshop -- is playfully clocked, and the show just manages to pull back from the preachy. "We want entertaining, not cripples complaining!" larks Hammond, in the nick of time.

Crucially, I left the theatre thinking about her stature, but as a performer, not as a person. And humming "Cheeky face, cheeky face . . ."

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism