Tom Sutcliffe: I entered a rat maze – and I was scared

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The Independent Online

I 'm going to do something irritating, which is to recommend an experience that you can't have. Or probably can't, anyway, the Manchester Festival production of It Felt Like a Kiss having sold out not very long after booking opened – on the strength, I take it, of a collaboration which pulls together three potent fanbases: admirers of Damon Albarn, who provides some of the music; devotees of Punchdrunk's site-specific theatre events and fans of Adam Curtis's uniquely suggestive political documentaries.

Still, somebody might miss their allotted slot – in a schedule that appears to be as tightly controlled as Heathrow departures – and if you manage to fill their place what you'll discover – after a pre-flight briefing that warns you to think twice if you're of a nervous disposition (or pregnant) – is a very sophisticated House of Horror. The bland Manchester office block which Punchdrunk have temporarily commandeered has been shuttered off and converted into a kind of behavioural rat maze, dimly-lit and full of strange sounds and even stranger sights.

As you wind your way through the labyrinth you find yourself passing through Fifties room sets in which every detail is potentially significant. If there's a typewriter on the desk it's worth bending over to read what's on the paper sticking out of it. Video monitors play unsettling images – either horrible in their own right (an Asian soldier burning to death) or unsettling because of their inappropriate jauntiness. Eventually you find yourself in a film club, watching a short film by Adam Curtis (pictured) that crystallises your suspicion that there really is an underlying meaning to the preceding atmospheric bric-a-brac.

Details you've just seen in life reappear on screen – but this time in a Doris Day movie, or archive footage of an ad shoot. And other details find an echo too. That map of the Congo you saw on someone's desk, you realise, must relate to footage of the capture of Patrice Lumumba, in a CIA sponsored coup – and there's some connection to Aids too, and BF Skinner and Lee Harvey Oswald's trip to Russia.

Though you can't pin anything down categorically you understand yourself to be enmeshed in a conspiracy – and that sense of not knowing quite what is going on is amplified even further when you appear to become the subjects of an unspecified experiment yourself. It is, by the end, genuinely unsettling.

Out in the light again, though, I found myself thinking about the deep theatrical allure of conspiracies – and the satisfaction they deliver, which is to tidy up complex and unsatisfactory narratives into something more legible. A naïve reading of It Felt Like a Kiss would say that it was ghost train in which all the spooks turned out to be working for the CIA. A more sophisticated reading might suggest that it was a demonstration of how easily we can be manipulated by disquiet into accepting the next plausible narrative that comes along.

In either case, I think, it offers a warning of how parasitic conspiracy theories can be, how paradoxically soothing they are to anxious minds. I'm still trying to work out whether Punchdrunk intended to warn its audience – whether they understand that there might be a distinction between secret skulduggery which actually took place and the stuff that grows like mould on events that are hard to absorb. But whatever their original intentions they've produced an object lesson in the dangerously seductive power of secret histories.

How should we remember Eliot's shelter?

I was a little surprised to read that Alan Bennett's name had been attached to a campaign to preserve the Margate seafront shelter in which T.S. Eliot wrote part of The Waste Land, if only because Bennett doesn't seem the type for literary fetishism.

Andrew Motion might describe the Nayland Rock shelter as "a shrine, a temple" but you feel Bennett would be more likely to mischievously undermine any attempt at spiritual afflatus by pointing out some bathetic local detail.

Looking closer at his remarks though it becomes clear that, for him, preserving the pavilion is the top priority and T.S. Eliot just a happy footnote. Victorian seaside amenity, available to all, easily trumps modernist pilgramages, which will be the preserve of relatively few. And given that T.S. Eliot had a definition of culture that included "Wensleydale cheese" and "beetroot in vinegar" – and would probably have taken a rather dim view of bookish idolatry – Bennett's attitude is surely a more fitting tribute to his memory than Andrew Motion's ostensibly more reverent approach.

I don't think Eliot would have wanted it preserved as a shrine – but he probably would have approved of its conservation as a place where you could get out your Thermos and have a nice cup of tea if it was drizzly. And some cheese and beetroot sandwiches.

When swearing might have helped me

Intriguing to see that researchers at Keele University have established that swearing really is an effective form of pain relief. They discovered that volunteers were able to endure pain for longer if repeating a self-selected swear-word ("one you might use if you hit your thumb with a hammer") than if they intoned one of five synonyms for "table".

It reminded me of the low-tech form of pain relief I was offered by the matron at my boarding school, after an accident with a craft-knife left me with bone-deep cut on my thumb. We could go to the local infirmary and have it done with anaesthetic, she explained reluctantly, but that would take hours. Alternatively she could stitch me herself, she continued, using a brightly encouraging tone of voice that may not have been unconnected to the fact that she'd been watching an episode of Coronation Street.

As she unwrapped a curved surgical needle she offered me a quid pro quo for having chosen the more convenient option. "You can swear if you want," she said briskly. To my friends' disappointment I didn't exploit this liberty as fully as I might have done. Indeed I didn't exploit it at all, being a little uncertain about what Matron classified as swearing. I opted instead for the traditional analgesic of the stiff upper lip – but now I find I really should have let fly.