Big Guns. Posh. Grounded.
Three shows in two weeks. All of them about violence.
It’s somewhere around 1594 and a groundling at the Globe has just been sick over their only good pair of clothes. They are watching Titus and Andronicus and a guy dressed as a girl has just walked in with their hands cut off and tongue pulled out. It’s 2015 and an elderly lady has just fainted in the third row back at the National Theatre watching Cleansed. Theatre really shocks people. And that’s just the graphic stuff. Stage violence has had a long-standing history and it doesn’t move in a straight line. You can read about it on Wikipedia. The point is, violence and particularly violence on stage gets to us, to audiences, in a way that films, books, the news, doesn’t. In the three productions I saw, none of them actually showed any violence, or at least the one stage fight I did see I am preferring to block from my memory for now (we’ll come to that later).
Big Guns at the Yard Theatre, directed by Dan Hutton and written by Nina Segal, has an awesome, rock and roll, in-yer-face, super aesthetic opening image. Two girls sit in a carved out ledge on a stage slanted upwards. They’re wearing 3D glasses. It’s red, everything is red. There’s popcorn, there’s a hot dog, they sip pepsi. The play begins and we are taken on a path through some jaunty but slightly repetitive dialogue. It’s kind of Crimp, it’s kind of Churchill but it’s not really either. The actors act it which is perhaps not the intention here. Of the director or the writer, in my opinion. There’s a lot of blackouts. Like, a lot. And torches which is clever and there’s a chilling moment where the lights are off and an actor is speaking in the blackout, but then a torch shines on her and we see she’s not speaking at all. It’s a little unsettling. More than anything this play talks about violence. It talks about guns, pornography, technology, blogs, and well, I’m not really sure what else. There is a man in the room and he’s got a gun. We know that, we are told that, but isn’t that kind of…obvious? As a metaphor, as a threat, as a central image? Suddenly the actors are crying (fake crying) and standing right in front of us and the lights are on us and I feel overwhelming not shocked. Not thrilled. Not excited. I don’t think I really feel challenged either. I feel quite negative, about the world, about my generation (something I don’t enjoy feeling), about men with guns. But I’m not fired up. The bullets aren’t loaded yet and the trigger isn’t even close to being pulled. I really wanted to love this show and I did like it, I just don’t think it worked for me. I didn’t feel violated. That’s how violence should make you feel. Like your skin shouldn’t be attached to your body. Like you can’t remember when your heart wasn’t beating faster than it normally does. I was waiting for something that didn’t happen, and not really in a good way.
Saying that, I do have to credit Big Guns for being better than the show I saw most recently. Laura Wade’s Posh at Pleasence Theatre in Islington (it’s more like Holloway). It’s marketed as an all-female cast, that’s the selling point, that’s why I booked a ticket because I thought it might do something new. Although this was my first time seeing Posh performed, I do know the play a little and I was interested to see how the show held up with women in the central roles. Not well, apparently. As discussed on my twitter with Nastazja (@NastazjaSomers) the acting was good (particularly impressed with Gabby Wong, thought she carried the whole show) but the direction was confused and basic, there was no real vision for the all-female cast, it just felt like a half-hearted publicity stunt. The gender bend was also a bit half hearted – were they women playing men or women (and if so why weren’t any pronouns changed). I saw why the two originally female roles weren’t changed, because seeing women berating and harassing other women is ‘creepy’ as my mother put it. After the first act I decided that it would be unbearable to watch a male cast perform this play. The leering, the constant bigotry, the disgusting sexual degradation of the female characters. But actually, I think it would also have been incredibly difficult to watch this play performed by white men because then the words become violent in a very different way. The most powerful men in the country are reflected here. What does that say about us? But then you put women in their roles and it has the potential to be expertly subversive. Sadly, it was not, and didn’t seem to want to advance women at all, really. The direction itself was lazy and I’ve seen it a thousand times. Strobe and slow motion choreography, didactic recordings of the play’s message, a very badly directed fight scene, all made for a show where the words were violent, no doubt, but the show? Not at all. I was in no way affected by this piece of theatre. And I really should have been. Edward Bond didn’t tackle censorship laws for this – he expects better, we all expect better.
Then there comes a type of violent theatre that shakes you. Like really fucking shakes you. And you are left with an empty stomach and no fucking words except, well, except nothing actually. I was left without language really. It’s taken me this long (two weeks) to come to terms with it. To feel like I could write a small bit about it. Grounded at the Gate was performed by the inimitable Lucy Ellinson and directed by Chris Haydon. Lucy is a fighter pilot. She stands in a pixelated, four-walled box. We can see her but she’s blurred. The lines are blurred around her. It’s loud, like really loud, and the disco lights in the floor bounce around. Lucy takes a sip of pepsi. Wipes her mouth. We’re back in Las Vegas, in America, in an army base. She’s controlling a drone. She wipes someone out. She wipes a lot of people out. We don’t see it, but we feel it. We feel it so hard it takes everything I have not to run out. Not to scream to her that it’s wrong. But then, it’s also real. Fear, carnage, and ponies racked the seams of the grey tone reality the fighter pilot stood in. I was sweating. The violence in Grounded comes not only in the bombs, the planes, the wars; it comes in her emotional trauma, her life force being sucked out, in the solid grey walls that box her in at the final moment. We are told of the violence that she creates, we never see it. We imagine it and it’s worse. We feel the violence she feels, we experience it with her, but she’s behind a screen, so the empathy is always artificial.
So, three shows that explore the violence of language, of modern day Britain, of the elite, of weaponry, of theatre. Perhaps it is unfair to compare them and actually it probably is so I’m not comparing them. Please don’t see this as a comparison. It’s an observation of how we talk about violence, and whether certain types of violence affect us more, and why that is. So, my friend Clara loves to tell me about her essays and I love when she tells me about her essays and in one she researched how slow violence really doesn’t affect us like immediate violence. So, climate change is a slow violence, that we can ignore, so we do – we go unaffected. Bombs being dropped in a film is immediate violence, we feel something, even if it’s not much, we feel something at least. I think what theatre must do is take the slow violence, the brooding unnoticed violence and make it immediate. Ask, why can’t you see this as a threat? Why can’t you see me as a threat? Theatrical violence is at its best when it threatens you, when it threatens your apathy. When you leave the theatre guilty. Or afraid. Or responsible. Or, hopefully, fired up.