I found myself thinking about "timeliness" the other day – a contemporary virtue that is pretty much a monopoly of new work. Timeliness is first cousin to "relevance" – the condescending tribute we pay to a classic which has already proved its ability to interest everybody except us – but there's a subtle difference. Where "relevance" can never entirely disguise an implicit astonishment that dead people might have something to say to living ones, "timeliness" congratulates an author for being ahead of the curve. At their worst these terms can be callowly vainglorious. Essentially you're saying: "You're interested in what I'm interested in right now. Which must mean you're smart". But they also address less disreputable sensations; in the case of "relevance" a pleasure at finding that we have concerns in common with previous generations and, in the case of "timeliness", the feeling that an artist has somehow anticipated what's on our collective mind. There's a hint of utility here too, the idea that, at precisely the moment we need this play or book, it's presented to us, coinciding with requirements we didn't know we were going to have.
Lucy Kirkwood's new play NSFW (above) provoked the word in me – largely because of its opening conceit, which has the staff of a down-market lads' mag discovering that the winner of their readers' girlfriends beauty contest – appearing in the current issue in all her topless glory – is actually only 14 years old. What follows is a witty and sharp dissection of social and sexual hypocrisies, both on the part of the journalists who are exploiting her and her outraged father (who only finds out about it because he buys the magazine himself). And, in the immediate aftermath of the Savile affair – a scandal which shone a very disconcerting light on past and present attitudes to sexual maturity and sexual behaviour – this plot-line seemed near perfect in its timeliness. The point was, of course, that Kirkwood couldn't have known about the revelation that would frame the premiere of her play so perfectly. That's part of the pleasure of it. It's as if she'd laid a long-odds bet on what the audience would be interested in during the play's run and won big.
And it wasn't just the Savile story that provided a following wind. On the day I went to see the play a minor Twitter storm had blown up because the Daily Mail – so vigilant in its pursuit of those who'd failed to prevent Savile's abuses – had published a picture of a 14-year-old on its online site, "flaunting her womanly curves", as the caption put it. So an imaginary embarrassment found itself matched almost exactly by a real one.
So, does Kirkwood have some preternatural gift for sensing the way the wind is blowing? She doesn't think so. "People keep saying to me, 'isn't it good timing?'," she said in an interview, "but we are always talking about these things, aren't we?" She makes a good point. Because timeliness is rarely about timing, however much it might look like that as we pattern-match between newsprint and the stage. The trick isn't to get your play on at just the right moment. It's to write about a subject that still has live current running through it. In that sense NSFW would have been timely even if the Savile story hadn't broken shortly in advance of its opening. We would just have had more difficulty spotting it. And Kirkwood wasn't simply taking a gamble that the world might throw up a helpful scandal, she was effectively setting her own odds so that a coincidence was more likely. Timeliness, in other words, just means good.
Let sleeping theatregoers lie
I felt genuine sympathy for Peter Hall, nodding off in Uncle Vanya the other night. Let him who has never jerked upright with a jolt cast the first stone, and I admit it couldn't be me. Oddly, I've noticed that my narcolepsia dramatica never strikes after the interval, even in productions that are soporific. I think the body decides for you. I've been up for hours, it calculates, and now everything's gone dark. Must be time to power down the central processing unit. You try to reason with it but it just ignores you. In my case, the interval then reboots the system. I might still want to shout things but almost never because I'm not sure where I am.
What a title can add to art
I've occasionally fantasised that art works might come with nutritional-style labelling. It should include a measure of the proportion of the meaning contained in the title as opposed to the piece itself. Some works, for instance, are 99.9 per cent stuff, and so would happily survive anonymity. Others are very dependent on the words that accompany them. I saw a good example the other day in the National's Seduced by Art show. Sam Taylor-Wood's video, Still Life, is a time-lapse image of a bowl of fruit rotting. But then the pullulating vitality of the rot alerts you to the ambiguity of "still". It's still life, but just of a different nature. Without the title the film is a curiosity, but not a lot more. And without the film the title is completely inert. I think you'd label it 50/50 in this case.