Where Are We Now?

by Pip Williams

(N.B- My dad was telling me the other day about the phrase “All protocols observed”, which he’d sometimes hear at the beginning of meetings or events, and which would essentially mean all the relevant niceties and introductions had been followed, and would stand in place of said niceties and introductions. So I’d like to invoke “All protocols observed”, and let’s just take it as read that yes, the following will be sort of implicitly about lockdown/the pandemic, because everything is at the moment, but no, I will not be mentioning them again, for much the same reasons. P x)

“And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth.

And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes…”

     –John 11:43-44

What do we mean by resurrection?

In the Biblical story of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus is told that his friend Lazarus is dead, and he goes to Bethany and, miraculously, raises him from the dead, before going on his merry way. Jesus says that he “is the resurrection, and the life”- that by believing in him, you have conquered death itself, and own eternal life. In the Biblical sense, resurrection is very much about a freeing from death, a victory over it- it is not a zombie-like re-animation, nor is it a kind of ghostly reproduction, but a full restoration to life (literally, surrexit- to stand up, to straighten). From the void of death, if we are to believe John’s Gospel, Jesus retrieves Lazarus, and makes of him a living human again. He tells Lazarus’ family to “take off the grave clothes, and let him go”. The ransom is paid, and death is vanquished.

Lazarus, then, is an intriguing and evocative title for David Bowie’s final album, and the accompanying musical (which he co-wrote with playwright Enda Walsh, and which was directed by Ivo Van Hove), a stream of which I watched last Sunday, in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of Bowie’s death. I saw the play when it was first on in London in 2017, a year or so after Bowie’s death, and there was a definite Lazarene eeriness about it then; the story is a sort of spiritual sequel to Bowie’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell To Earth (based on the novel by Walter Tevis), and follows the continuing adventures of spaceman Thomas Jerome Newton (played with gaunt, jaded strangeness by Michael C Hall, who does a very passable Bowie impression), now alcoholic and lonely in an apartment in New York, yearning for his home planet.

Watching it onstage back in 2017, the parallels with its creator were almost unbearably poignant; the lonely alien, brilliant and magnetic, gazing at the stars and finally allowed to go home in a rocket he’d built, to live out his days among the spheres. The band played excellently, and if you shut your eyes you could maybe even convince yourself that you were hearing the Thin White Duke himself, playing “All The Young Dudes” or “Absolute Beginners”.

But even then, as I say, it was an eerie experience- inevitably the whole piece became an elegy, sometimes a hagiography, and the shadow of Bowie’s death and absence fills the play like an army of ghosts. And while it was undeniably thrilling to hear a great band play David Bowie songs very loudly, you just kept remembering- he is still dead. Lazarus remains in his tomb.

Watching the stream the other day, then, was even weirder. Streaming is, if you like, a kind of resurrection, and especially now it is a real joy to be able to see or rewatch plays you thought would live only in your memory, and to be reminded of the joys of live theatre. But at the same time it is not a resurrection, can never be, because we are still watching something that is fundamentally stuck in the past- a relic, a ghost. And though the livestream is beautifully recorded and directed for film, I am simply not having the same experience of it watching it alone in my room.

It has also now been a few years since Bowie’s death, and so I think we’re able to take a slightly more critical, if still very fond, view of his work. Seeing the play the year after Bowie’s death, it was, as said, a beautiful, mad swansong from a truly legendary man and artist. Watching it now, it seems to be something a lot more complex and slippery. It is a massively odd play, and bits of it verge on incomprehensible, I now realise. Some songs are objectively better than others. Stripped of its funereal quality, it becomes instead a bleary, desperately sad reflection on loneliness, grief, the past and reality itself. And instead of giving the impression that it’s resurrecting Bowie, it seems now to be trying to summon him, séance-like, an invocation or a prayer.

The fact that it never quite does adds to its almost cosmic sadness, felt even more keenly at this distance.

It is a play about nothings and somethings. About trying to make new things out of old, reimagining the past and looking to the future. This is both in terms of form and content, of course; Walsh and Bowie weave in a really bracing selection of tracks, from the beloved (“Changes”, “Life On Mars”), to the downright esoteric (“It’s No Game”, “This Is Not America”). This is no jukebox musical, but an active exploration and reimagining of a wildly varied back catalogue.

In terms of story, Newton stumbles around his apartment, drinking gin and eating sweets, mourning for a lost love and trying to forget his past- “There’s nothing of the past,” he says near the beginning. “It left.” A mysterious girl is sent (from space? From the future?) to help him remember, and in remembering return home.

It is a story then about rejuvenation, about the past’s place in the present, and about how we tell the stories of ourselves (something Bowie was concerned with his whole life). A recurring motif is Newton trying to remember, with the girl, walking with his daughter through a field on his home planet, telling her stories and holding her hand- “Speak some more,” she says, “And we’ll travel on.” The memory, and that phrase, becomes for him a talisman, a fragment of his past that he clings to in the present, that grounds him and helps him look to the future.

But all that said, it is also a play about the opposite of the above; about nothingness, stasis, and the meaninglessness of trying to construct stories. Much of the play happens in Newton’s purgatorial apartment, in a boozy, amnesiac fug- “Here is my place/without a plan”, sings the Girl when she first arrives. In the background stands a TV, which flickers with static, plays jumbled reels of world events and pop culture, and which occasionally replicates the scenes happening on the stage in front of it, though skipping ahead or lagging behind. It is a space defined by what it isn’t- not home, not heaven, “not America”.

In such a space, the past seems a ludicrous story, and the future a blank. At the beginning Newton’s friend comes by and relates some of the events of The Man Who Fell To Earth, trying to jog Newton’s memory. Newton is so depressed he barely acknowledges that it happened, as if remembering would only make his current situation worse.

The hollowness of story is also exposed by the play’s antagonist, the misanthropic serial killer Valentine (in a really extraordinary performance by Michael Esper, exuding a loneliness so profound it seems almost cancerous). Totally unable to experience love or meaningful relationships, he instead constructs them, learning them by rote and spewing them out, more alien even than Newton; in one scene he meets a couple at a party, and, listening to them describe how they met, he weeps and clutches his neck like he has an allergy. Later he meets them again, with Elly (Newton’s assistant whom he’s kidnapped), and at knifepoint he tells them the exact same story back again before stabbing the man to death. Likewise at the beginning, we see him meet one of Newton’s friends and tell him a story about when they were kids together, which the friend cannot at all remember and denies strenuously.

Valentine is the story’s dark inversion, an example of the danger of self-mythologizing, of parasiting off the joy and creativity of others, of building a fiction around a hollow core. Valentine is rampant chaos and entropy embodied- in a scene near the end, the screen behind him appears to make him billow black smoke, which spreads and chokes the entire stage. “There’ll always be another love to kill,” he admits, his shame and isolation almost leaking from him.

If Newton’s storytelling gives him a loving future to hold onto, Valentine’s gives him a solipsistic fantasy world that locks out anyone else.

In the end, you cannot make something out of nothing. Valentine’s stories do not help him, and end up destroying others. While Newton’s stories are a symbol of hope, even he admits that talking, “Trying to turn these old words into something new,” is as exhausting as it is ultimately meaningless. In order to leave the closed-circuit world of the play he has to literally fly away, he has to act, to actively change his circumstance. As for the Girl, she turns out to be the spirit of a murdered child, and Newton has to kill her again in order for her to pass on peacefully (or something.)

Added to all of which, I have the suspicion that the show just wouldn’t work if David Bowie wasn’t dead. In that clever way of his, he has created a piece of art that, when inflected by his own demise, becomes, and therefore will always be, impossibly poignant and wistful (even if bits of it are kind of dramaturgically unsound). A story about new life, about the affirming power of storytelling, memory and dreaming, works only because there can be no resurrection. Its sadness is unavoidable, its central mystery unknowable.

Perhaps that’s why it’s called Lazarus; for its duration, we get to see something live again.

All of which makes for a pretty gloomy reading of the play, I’ll admit. And I suspect the creative team did not decide to stream it in 2021 in order to remind us of our mortality and the ultimate futility of our creative endeavours.

As I’ve said, the play exists largely in a gin-addled maybe-state, and Newton is always somewhere between remembering and forgetting, just as he is between the heavens and the earth. But there is something often beautiful in this state, as well as stultifying- when memories pierce through the haze they are vivid, bright as lightning. At one point Newton bursts into a rendition of “Where Are We Now?”, a beautiful track off 2013’s The Next Day, seemingly recollecting a past romantic life of Newton’s, but also of course recollecting Bowie’s own history, and depicting a stroll through Berlin (“Had to get the train/From Potsdamer Platz…”). The chorus is a question that is never answered- “Where are we now/Where are we now?”- and there is a euphoria to that question; Newton contemplates how far he’s come in his human life, and the things he’s seen, as a means of grounding his present; we as the audience will have our own private answers to that question, too. And there is the implicit reassurance of the outro- “As long as there’s sun…As long as there’s rain…As long as there’s me…As long as there’s you…” (which in Van Hove’s production was accompanied by footage of the Berlin Wall coming down- a cheap trick undoubtedly, but one that still brought a tear to this writer’s overemotional eye), and likewise Bowie doesn’t need to finish the thought- we all know what he means, in our private ways.

Similarly the dreamy conditionals of the final song- “Heroes”, of course- “we could be heroes”; “I would be king”. The future is always something teetering on the edge of tangibility, always arriving, never quite here. It is dependent on the stories we tell ourselves, to some degree, and each other. At best, with stories we can make our own resurrections, and conquer the void. And failing that, at least we can kill a little time together. The play ends with an extended monologue from Newton, as he accepts the end of his time on our planet, and the end of the story, as he prepares to go home, finally- vowing “a new world I’ll dream big up there.” One story is finished, and another is about to begin, always arriving, never quite there.

Though in the end the future is not where we are now. Ultimately, it does not matter where we are now. It just matters that we are.

We are “here”- without a plan, looking at the stars, dreaming of homes of one kind or another.

So, readers- “Speak some more, and we’ll travel on.”