May 2004


So in love with the Island .

It’s been a constant presence in my life since I started meditating 5 years ago. It was my first introduction to Buddhism via the builderly, unshaven monks who were rebuilding the farm house when I first visited and it’s been the place I’ve always returned to refresh the Buddhist batteries.

I landed there one June to do a tai chi course and was so bowled over by serenity and happiness of the Monks and nuns that ran it, I thought, “I want some of that”. I came back 2 months later to work for a fortnight, getting to know that motley bunch of South Africans, Brummies, Mancunians, Londoners all in the maroon robes of the Kagyu Tibetan lineage. Also getting to know the fantastic contours of the island itself. A mile wide and 2 miles long, a mountain rising up out of the Firth of Clyde, a purplish peak running with streams down to its deep green, brackeny skirts. Wild horses and goats and the occasional Tibetan rock painting. There’s something about the springy grass and the intoxicating sea air that is deeply conducive to meditation and happiness. I love it there.

Now they’ve expanded the farmhouse into a retreat centre proper. And whilst the South End of the island is closed for a 3 year retreat for nuns, including my dear friend Rinchen Khandro, the rest of the island is there for the exploration. They’ve got a full programme this summer – yoga, tai chi, environmental work – and I coming back once again but this time to teach.

Last time I was there, I was talking to Shaun, one of the managers of the retreat centre, and saying they should lay on a basic meditation course for the layman… and within minutes he’d volunteered me for the job. Which I’m doing with huge enthusiasm.

Basically a week on the Island would inspire anyone to meditate. But sometimes it’s good to have someone to talk through the problems that come up … aching legs, wandering minds, uncertain focus. It’ll be about 6 days long with basic instruction in several different meditation techniques – concentration, insight and visualisation – they’ll be loads of practice, sitting and walking with afternoons free to experiment with different meditation styles as you explore the nooks and crannies of the island. There’re so many secluded, sun-kissed, wind-tickled spots to sit and ponder in. The rooms are really nice and smart now, there’s fabulous organic food from the garden, and if the weathers nice and there aren’t too many jellyfish you can swim with the seals in the lung-stretchingly fresh water.

I’m not sure how the numbers are doing but I’m sure there’ll be some space. Or we’ll make space if needs be. Booking’s through the Holy Island office. I love it, I love it, I love it.

Went with Gary to the Barbican to see Robert Wilson/Tom Waits/William Burrough’s The Black Rider.

I’ve had bad experiences with Robert Wilson before. I went to Berlin having seen clips of his work on telly and having fallen bodily in love with Einstein on the Beach when I was 17 at Sixth Form College. But when I finally saw a piece of his on stage I was left completely cold.

So I was a little apprehensive about this evening.

In fact it was a wonderful event. Even though Marianne Faithful was as wooden as a board – the rest of the cast were brilliantly Expressionistic and vivid. Wilson’s direction and staging was far from cold this time. It was beautiful in the way that a painting is beautiful. It doesn’t emote like a human body, but it chimes with certain inner patterns. It simply is. He’s often accused of making his actors marionettes. Perhaps it was the sleazy irregularity of Waits’ music or the choppy vernacular of Burrough’s words but the evening never became sterile, it was always filled with vitality – if not humanity.

The story is an old German myth – Weber’s Freischutz is based on it. In order to win his bride, a lover makes a pact with the devil to buy magic bullets so he can become the hunter his father-in-law is looking for. The final magic bullet – which the Devil controls – kills the bride. Burroughs twists this trope to encompass all runaway desires. All addictions = pacts with the Devil. And Wilson’s luminous detached, painterly setting of the text makes it all seem very potent. The last scene where Wilhelm aims for the dove but kills his bride is an agony of slow-motion white. And I found it quite emotional. In slowing every thing down and bleaching it out, Wilson gives a space where the audience’s own thoughts of loss and regret can start to fill the stage and twine around the imagery.

What struck me most forcibly however was the brilliance of the American performers. There’s a joy in the virtuosity of the voice and gesture that American actors have that is pitifully lacking on the British stage. Broadway incubates this wonderful confidence in the voice. So often British theatre seems embarassed of its theatricality, wretchedly afraid of being ‘showy’. The leads, Matt McGrath and Mary Margaret O’Hara were like fabulous instrumentalists of the body: gesture and voice. Just hearing them speak – even nonsense – was a emotional act. (Though to be fair, the Brit Nigel Richards was also astonishingly good.)

There’s too much emphasis on meaning in contemporary British theatre – there’s no respect for the wider power of gesture. I’m researching for a documentary at the moment about the Volksbuhne am Rosa Luxemburgplatz in Berlin just after the fall of the Wall – and looking at all the photos from those crazy, glorious productions by Castorf, Marthaler and Kresnik, really reminded me of my joy in good theatre. That theatre in particular made no concessions to normality or accessibility. Every show was a little mad universe: the ocean-liner wooden decadence of Marthaler’s Sturm with its musical structure, exact repititions and sudden eruptions of Renaissance polyphony; the 4 hours of Castorf’s Frau vom Meer with its electric guitar solos, assault course of a set and extreme attenuation of text; the sumptuous staging of Kresnik’s Macbeth with miked floors, orchestra pit full of offal, ballets of bathtubs. It was all ecstatically theatrical. And all about the immediacy of the gesture. The real presence of actors on stage in front of room of people. V-Effect extrem.

The moment when Matt McGrath walks along the narrow bar that separates orchestra from auditorium bellowing out the penultimate Waits’ song was one of those moments. I looked around the audience who were so close to him. It was one man singing, acting and hundreds of people watching. It was a unique, odd human interface. It needed no other meaning.