Comic, Daniel Kitson, from the United Kingdom, pictured at the Opera House. (Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images/Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Streaming Daniel Kitson

The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church explores the possibility of human connection

It’s impossible to write about The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church without giving it all away. I apologize for that—but in my bittersweet defence, there’s no way you can watch the show now, anyway.

I’ve seen Daniel Kitson live on two occasions and left both times in awe

Narrated by the comic Daniel Kitson, playing a fictionalized version of himself, it’s about the discovery of a cache of letters in the attic of a suicide, Gregory Church. The narrator lives in solitude in his London flat, bereft of friends; they have left the city for greener pastures. He becomes obsessed with the letters, more than 30,000 back and forth in all, beginning with a suicide note written 24 years earlier, along with 56 letters intended to settle accounts which instead spark a blaze of correspondence that delays the inevitable. Church writes to the mysterious Isabel, who never writes back, and to others who do: Lillian Greaves, a local bank teller; Woodrow Arnold, a newspaper editor; and Benjamin McCrea, a bullied teenager.

The swerve is that we slowly realize, with Kitson the narrator, that Church didn’t ultimately kill himself. After that first failed plot, he didn’t want to end his life. He wasn’t a procrastinator on the constant verge of suicide, but a man saved by the charity and then the friendship of those who wrote him back. The narrator misread as a second suicide note the last unfinished letter, dated 24 years from the first. The misdirection is explained with varying degrees of plausibility; and the performance ends.

I may need to explain who Daniel Kitson is. To some, he’s an icon; to others, a non-entity. The basic facts are these:

  1. A British comedian who writes and performs both monologues and solo plays, Kitson started doing stand-up at the age of 16.
  2. His first show at the Edinburgh Fringe was nominated for the 2001 Perrier Comedy Award; he won it for his second show, the following year, when he was 25.
  3. Kitson is regarded by a number of critically acclaimed stand-ups as the best there is, both for his jokes and for the structure of his (often experimental) work.
  4. He is obsessive in managing his public profile, playing only to intimate venues and refusing to publish more than a tiny fraction of his catalogue; you can watch only one of his many shows online and listen to a handful more.

All of which is context for Kitson’s announcement, on 14 May, that he would stream the newly edited video of Gregory Church, originally performed in 2009, the following week. Committed fans learned the news from his e-mail newsletter and struggled to explain their excitement to friends: “He talks very fast for a long time; the stories are complicated but funny in parts; he sometimes chats with members of the audience and giggles.” I’ve seen Daniel Kitson live on two occasions and left both times in awe, but when asked why was reduced to a mortifying stutter of “You had to be there…”

I don’t think it works on the page. You had to be there

In classic Kitson style, things didn’t quite go to plan. The logistics for the screenings were designed, he claimed, to recreate the feeling of live performance on a sustainable virtual model. The show would air three times a day from 18 to 24 May, once each on UK, New York, and Melbourne time. He would introduce the show and stream it live: no pauses, no downloads. Ticket numbers would be limited to the number of seats at the original venue at which the show was performed in the relevant location—336 in Bristol, 376 in Melbourne, 200 in Brooklyn—and would go on sale at 12:00 noon local time on Friday, 15 May.

If you’re a Kitson follower, you won’t be surprised to hear that the rush of traffic crashed the website, leading to a day of recriminations, sincere but humorous apologies by e-mail, frantic troubleshooting, and a more successful second run on Monday morning. I managed to get tickets to the Brooklyn show for Wednesday night, arranged my laptop on an upturned tub at about eye level on our coffee table, corralled my family, and clicked the link.

You will have noticed that the abstract of the show with which I opened isn’t funny. It’s hard to convey the humour, which is so interstitial it eludes description. For example: Woodrow Arnold writes back to the suicide letter Church mailed to the local paper, ridiculing his poor prose and urging that he stay alive at least until he learns how to write; this level of illiteracy could drive an editor to suicide. It’s the beginning of a beautiful, bantering friendship, built on missives of “derogatory bombast.” But I don’t think it works on the page. You had to be there.

What was the story of a lone eccentric is now the condition of millions

Kitson roams a square-shaped theatre-in-the-round, speaking with monotonous passion, occasionally distracted. Wearing glasses, worn jeans and a checked shirt, he is stocky, balding, and bearded—a logorrheic bear. At one point, he appears to lose his place, miscued by similar sentences two paragraphs apart. Unperturbed, he rattles through the words of the script repeatedly, murmuring under his breath with joking asides, until the gears catch, and the engine sputters back to life. Watching with focus, I couldn’t tell whether it was deliberate or unplanned. Or perhaps an allusion to the value we can find in lives of quiet repetition?

When you see Kitson in person, moments like these are electrifying: he plays impishly with the uncertainty of his audience. But I’ll be honest: on screen, it’s a bit of a let-down, a meandering five-minute pause. Streaming Daniel Kitson is not like watching him live. I found it hard to sustain complete attention, to feel drawn in or part of an event. The show is both comical and moving—an understated exploration of why life is worth living at all. But it did not inspire the awe that I was hoping for.

My teenage son got bored halfway through. My wife persevered—and when I closed the laptop, we talked about what we missed. There’s a physiological aspect to theatre, a chemical reaction that you only get from being in a room with an attentive audience and a moving body or bodies. The possibility of contact matters: the one-sided presence of performers. Ephemerality summons us together. Attempts to replicate this online fail.

I don’t think Kitson would be shocked by this—and I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t enjoy the show; I did. But I was conscious throughout of being excluded from the experience of the actual audience, pictured on screen, of the irreplaceability of live performance, the very thing that makes Kitson reluctant to share his work in the form of downloads or DVDs. In the live introduction to the screening, he said, repeatedly: “Live theatre is fucked.”

It’s surely not an accident that the show Kitson chose to air is about a lonely man who is sustained by his connection with another lonely man, who is sustained in turn by correspondence: communication over distance. The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church explores the possibility of human connection, defeating despair to live a meaningful life, in a circumstance of physical isolation. What was the story of a lone eccentric is now the condition of millions.

The show is hopeful, but its consolation is tempered. In his first letter, Church writes to Isabel: “not one human being has chosen to speak to me in six months.” Towards the end, he is a guest at Benjamin’s wedding, accompanied by Lillian, and performs a brutal comic takedown at Woodrow’s funeral. In the claustrophobia of Kitson’s monologue, these moments of narrated contact kindle joy—reminding us that, whatever its value, salvation by mail is second best.

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