One Person Talks About Violence

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.

 

Why Are You So Intimidated by Equality (A Response to Dominic Cavendish)

Well, it’s late, I’m tired, and I have an essay which I’m putting off and I’m angry so I’m writing another post. This time it’s to Dominic Cavendish. He wrote an article in the Telegraph on the 23rd of February about how women are essentially stealing men’s roles. I don’t think that people I follow on twitter accepted the article in any way, but I want to respond because maybe one person, but almost definitely a lot more, will read the article and feel legitimised in their sexism, and that’s not okay.

I think the problem I have with the article (apart from the pretty blatant misogyny) is that Cavendish is really talking about two very separate issues, but melds them into one and in doing so basically shits on female actors. There is the issue of gender bending and how it artistically affects a show, and then there’s the issue of men being ‘elbowed aside’ as he calls it. Firstly, Anna How (@himalanna) tweeted that this article reminds her distinctly of a statistic which says that if there’s 17% women, men in the group think its 50-50. If 33% women, men perceive more women than men and I think that is essentially what Cavendish is struggling with when he asks women ‘to get their mitts off male actors’ parts’. Women are coming to the forefront of the theatre world, with the Royal Court leading the way with a female Artistic Director and putting on eight plays written by women in 2016 out of a total of thirteen, and some people are finding it hard to deal with. Institutionalised misogyny makes us all victims of devaluing women in theatre, and institutionalised racism means that minority actresses are even more devalued. This is slowly changing, but the change is really quite slow, and it’s only slowed down by articles titled ‘the death of the great male actor’. Male actors won’t die out because women are acting too.

It’s interesting that the problem of gender-blind casting usually only seems to be an issue when it comes to historical plays – people feel more protective of Shakespeare and Chekov. They don’t want roles like Hamlet and King Lear to be played by women because they were written for men – right? Well, yes but the female parts were also written for men, so the logic kind of falls apart after that.

Cavendish talks about a suspension of disbelief in theatre, but he uses it to counteract what he calls the ‘thought police’, whereas it seems to me he is being the particularly rigid and traditional one in this situation. Yes, theatre is about play and disbelief – so why does gender matter so greatly when an actor is performing? I was in a workshop with Tim Crouch, and he quoted Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’ saying ‘I’ve changed the physical substance of the glass of water into an Oak Tree…I didn’t change it’s appearance. But it’s not a glass of water. It’s an oak tree’. And then, he applied that to theatre – I’ve changed the physical substance of Tamsin Greig into Malvolia…I didn’t change it’s appearance. But it’s not Tamsin Greig. It’s Malvolia. Now I’m not even trying to pretend I came up with this – it was all Crouch – but it’s really quite powerful to think about that and then read the Cavendish article. Doesn’t it seem slightly…redundant now? Acting is about transformation and often gender-bending does come with a political comment, and if so, even better – it’s probably commenting on the state of the world more than your article ever will.

 

 

Thoughts after Love

On Saturday I saw Love at Birmingham Rep, a transfer from the National Theatre in London. I loved it and I wanted to write about it but it’s been hard to articulate exactly how it moved us all so profoundly. So I’ve collated my thoughts about the show which will never do it justice. In no way is this a review of the show. I didn’t feel like it was right to review it. It warranted an emotional response not an analytical discussion.

Human compassion is delicate and intangible. It gives strength and it complicates us more than we can comprehend.

It can’t save us. It can push us through but it often cannot penetrate to the institutions which have the power to incite change.

Empathy feels like the most powerful and futile of our facets.

Children are light in times of darkness.

Acceptance is difficult. Tolerance is difficult. Sharing, in every sense, is a hard and conflicting necessity.

Theatre is a presentation, a call to action, a story, a representation, a necessity.

We are sat in the lives of the characters. We are sat on the stage. We are sat in the society that crushes them.

We are so close to them and yet we can never be with them.

Voyeuristic?

Important.

Being the first person to hold out your hand and help is the simplest and most true show of love.

We are responsible and helpless.

Familiarity is love. Comfort is love. Sacrifice is love.

If one thing endures it has been and always will be love.

I cried at the end. After the bows. It was a release. It was cathartic.

I feel guilty that I could let it go the next morning.

HIP – Vaults Festival

If a show doesn’t start with pillows and end with tequila shots from now on I’ll be very upset. 

Last night I was lucky enough to be invited to my first press night at the Vaults Festival in London for a show called Hip. Created, performed and researched by Jolie Booth, Hip places the audience in a squatter’s flat in Brighton, seemingly encased in history – specifically the history of Ann Clark, a vibrant mother and hedonist who lived and died there. The Vaults seemed to be the perfect place for Booth’s show to take place. Situated underneath Waterloo station we walked through a dark tunnel to get to the theatre, through a mixture of graffitied walls, damp pavements, and the distinct smell of wet paint. It looked like it could be a club or the venue for an underground art scene party. Basically – I felt really cool being there.

Booth begins the show outside – we are shown her Brighton in this dingy tunnel. She points out the sea, the seagulls, the shops, the windows and the people in them. We are given a momentary glimpse into her world. We are told we are being led down the back alley of a pub and ironically the small corridor we are actually led down also has that distinct smell of beer and sewage – it is underneath a train station – but still it felt oddly coincidental. Booth and Clark’s lives were similarly coincidental, colliding in random and meaningful ways. The performance was ‘extra-live’ so essentially it wasn’t really a show, as such, and more of a chat, a sharing of experience and a sharing of two lives. We sat on cushions and familiar songs played on a distant speaker. Booth guides us in bringing Ann into the room, asking us to hold hands and close our eyes. As we do this, and Booth talks to Ann, a train rattles above us and the whole room vibrates. Another coincidence that seems random and yet right.

The show didn’t really feel like a proper production but it was in a good way, I felt comfortable and at home. It was a story and a coincidence. Theatre intertwining with life intertwining with biography intertwining with hip bones.

Would really recommend seeing the show. Even if you don’t like theatre, or maybe especially if you don’t like theatre. And also because you get tequila shots at the end.

A Response. From a young and unpaid critic (or theatre blogger – up to you)

Right. I’m writing a response. And maybe no one will read it but what the hell, I’m putting off my first summative 3,500 word uni essay and this seems like worthwhile procrastination.

For those who are unaware, Matt Trueman posted an article in The Stage today about the decline of theatre blogging.

So I have a done a bit of blogging and bit of criticism here and there, some NSDF stuff, some unpaid online newspapers, some reviews on here that only my parents read…But I wouldn’t say I am an established theatre blogger. I haven’t been doing it for a long time but I have seen as many shows as I can and I have really really loved it.

I’m not paid for this and I have personally always felt like I’ve never wanted to be paid for it. When I was 16 I knew that I could and wanted to write about theatre but I didn’t want to be a “critic”. Being a “critic” meant that you went to shows you weren’t always passionate about, you had to meet gruelling deadlines, and you were surrounded by musty middle-aged men. In no world did that sound appealing. What I wanted (and I hope many other bloggers want) was to get really angry about theatre – so angry that all I could think about on the train home was how to form that first sentence about the mindnumbingly  patriarchal binaries of that show which got press because it had a celebrity in it. Or get so inspired by a show that I write a blog about it, and then I write a play inspired by it, and then I see more shows like it and all I can think about is how theatre is this incredibly visceral art form that requires you to respond. I wanted to experience again and again how liveness of theatre makes it unavoidable to have some kind of response.

But often, that response is filtered, or edited, or set back in some way once the writer decides it needs to be put out into the world. There’s a kind of struggle over whether your review will be ironic and funny, or heartfelt, or scathing, or profound – and where does it fit into the blogosphere? Has someone already said what you want to say, and have they said it better and have they been paid for it? Is your passionate outburst somehow less legitimate now? Is your review an artform in itself, and does it, therefore, have to be carefully constructed? Might you have the opportunity to work with these artists later on and therefore you can’t say what you really think? I constantly rattle these questions around in my little echo chamber of a brain but come to no real conclusion. And then, because of that, the review sometimes doesn’t get written. I don’t think that’s the problem for everyone and I don’t think that’s my only problem, but I think it is a contributing factor.

So, Matt, I think there is more to this than simply that the blogs are fading away. From my perspective anyway, there’s kind of a ‘standard’ you have to be at to be considered a theatre blogger – maybe your review was retweeted by Andrew Haydon (nice, you’re in), maybe you were followed by @TheStage (good one), or maybe you were mentioned in an article about the decline of theatre blogs… Anyway for young critics this can often seem intimidating and impenetrable. Also, Matt talked about how the conversation doesn’t seem as fraught anymore, and everyone is stepping away from criticism to their real life jobs in theatre (?) but maybe they just got kind of, complacent? Because the lack of debate in the sphere has as much to do with the readers as it does with the critics. Maybe it’s not about getting critics more passionate its about getting people to read and legitimise that passion.

Then, as also mentioned by Matt, there is the Bloggers vs Critics argument which has kind of died out as well. I disagree – I think that generally people think that if you’re paid you’re a critic, if you’re not you’re a blogger. I actually think that if you’re unpaid you’re more likely to be a critic – less constrained by press releases and the deadlines and the strict guidelines of what to say and what not to say. Again, why I always said I never wanted to become a ‘Theatre Critic’.

Also – it feels kind of disheartening to see an article like the one in The Stage today. I kind of am constantly feeling like I just missed the bandwagon – the amazing companies that came out of my university are just a little old for me to know and be involved with. And now I’ve missed the criticism bandwagon too? I’m not so sure. I think there’s still time for the game to be changed. Maybe there is some truth in the article – there most likely is a lot of truth in it. But I hope this new, snapchatting generation of kids can fight back. And who knows, maybe this will get retweeted by someone important and then what, I’ll become someone worth listening to? Or just someone who now happens to be on your radar, and is therefore worth reading?

 

 

Emerge Festival – Day Three

Get Yourself Together and TANK

So the Emerge Festival at Warwick Arts Centre has finished and everyone is exhausted and happy and relieved. It’s been (certainly in my eyes) a success. There have heated political discussions which divided rooms of intellectual and rational people, shows of really inspirational quality, and a bubbling sense of theatre being this elusive and amazing thing which can bring us together in the best ways but also ideologically tear us apart.

The two shows last night couldn’t have been more different, I don’t think. We began with Get Yourself Together – a one man piece about depression and our attitude to mental health devised and performed by Josh Coates. Some shows about mental health can be pretty insensitive, vibing off a Sarah Kane asylum theme with a lot of screaming and hospital gowns. This one, thank god, wasn’t like that at all. It was real and felt so tangible. Josh created a space with us where he shared some pretty heart wrenching stuff and yet he wasn’t deterred from making us laugh and becoming our friends. A big thing about mental health issues is quite often it feels like it can create a barrier when it’s talked about because people will probably either offer short term solutions, like a calming tea, or back away completely. It was pretty significant that Josh formed a place where those things weren’t going to happen. He related himself to us and allowed us into his world for just a short moment. In particular, actually, men’s mental health is stigmatised to a terrifying degree and because of our gender binaries and social constructions of masculinity, men are often made to feel as if they can’t talk about feeling sad and they can’t cry. I think the great thing about Josh’s show was that he smashed through these assumptions and came out the other side and was accepted. He opened up the conversation. He even left leaflets outside and offered to chat to people if they needed but also he encouraged the conversation to continue, which it did.

TANK, created and performed by Breach Theatre, was about creating a discourse between ‘us’ and ‘the other’. Breach Theatre’s show focused on the relationship between a dolphin, named Peter, and a researcher, Margaret. She attempts, as part of an experiment that happened in the 1960s, to teach this dolphin English. This actually happened though. Some of the script was verbatim and honestly I don’t think I’ll ever really get to grips with science but the 1960s were clearly a very weird time. The conversation TANK was creating was really about the colonial mind-set within the imperialist culture forming in America at the moment. It was about how we force ourselves onto those who don’t want or need us. The metaphor used to approach this pertinent topic was, frankly, ingenious – although the audience knew they were watching a show about a dolphin in an experiment, the fact that Joe was an actual person playing a dolphin in a show where the dolphin is a metaphor for actual people made it all the more disturbing and unsettling.

Opening up the conversation then, Josh’s show was about creating a safe space to connect with those around you in order to destigmatise a rhetoric surrounding an important political topic, while TANK was about creating a metaphor for the dehumanising of the other as a way to start and inform the ongoing conversation of xenophobia in the Western world. Both were about breaking down barriers, but one was through love and the other through force. Within TANK there were also various circling communities which formed and intersected with each other, creating a dialogue which was disputed and argued over throughout, in classic Crimp style. In Josh’s show there was his individual community and then there was ours – the one with Josh and the audience. Both shows played with the idea of subjectivity, and who gets to decide what you are and how you’re supposed to be.

After the shows we had a post-show talk as well, about the move from student theatre to professional theatre making. The general consensus seemed to be that it was hard, like really very hard, but also incredibly fulfilling. It’s kind of the ultimate goal to find people who you like making theatre with and then be able to do that for a sustained period of time. It’s obviously not easy but it’s not impossible which it definitely feels like sometimes, especially when the only thing people say to someone with a theatre degree is ‘Oh that’s a hard industry to get into, maybe start looking for a back-up plan’. I also think something that isn’t addressed often enough is that by making the distinction between ‘student theatre’ and ‘professional theatre’ a binary begins to form and it feels like certain criteria have to be met. Especially when the phrase ‘it was good for student theatre’ comes into the equation. It can be damaging to both students and professionals because surely everyone’s theatre should be judged on the same level. What was so great about Emerge was that there was work created by current students with graduates and stuff performed by recent graduates and not so recent graduates, and by people who had never even been here – but it was all put on the same level. Everyone was accepted and judged equally and that worked really well. Some of the best theatre I’ve seen all year has been here in these three days. Communities formed beautifully and were catastrophically broken down in an eclectic amalgamation of exciting work and interesting, insightful people.

Bring on next year.

Also – the company that curated and ran the festival, Barrel Organ, have their show Some People Talk About Violence going on tour next week – go check it out, buy tickets, and enjoy.

Emerge Festival Day Two

The Community Project and The Privileged 

The second day of the Emerge festival at Warwick Arts Centre in the middle of Coventry has finished. We have seen The Community Project and The Privileged. We are exhausted and drained – we are questioning and being questioned. I’m not going to pretend that I can write a perfect summary of this evening, but instead I hope to give a small insight into what was created and what occurred. This evening became rather centred around political debate and I don’t want to pretend I know all the answers to the questions we were asking, or that I even know which side of the debate I’m on.

We began with a formal discussion. We sat in a circle in front of a panel of academics and creatives and discussed the question; ‘What implications does an assembly of people have in political, social and cultural contexts?’ Chaired by Dr Rachel King, the panel and some of the audience, discussed what it means to be a community and an assembly. Can an assembly be a threat? Is one temporary and the other permanent? Should we create binaries for terms which are in themselves so dependent on a context, on the people in them? The ideas that were flying around about who defines a community and when does a group of people change from an assembly to a community had particular poignancy with the two shows last night. As well the notion that an assembly of people is inherently threatening, and are we willing to accept the risks of being within that assemblance of people?

The Community Project was a show created and performed by students at Warwick University – Clara, Ben, Lilith, and Eduardo with the help of some members of Barrel Organ. It was positively glowing, as shows go, and it made us feel part of something. Both shows tonight had a strong theme of audience involvement – in this first show we felt welcomed and taken under the wing of four individuals. These four people operated within the spheres of various different communities and we were let into just a small part of their worlds. There were jokes that perhaps only Warwick students would understand and stories which only the individuals themselves could understand, or the individual’s families. I think this highlighted a really interesting dynamic about how far we are ourselves and how far we are merely formed by those around us. The audience also felt very much part of a community created in the theatre itself as well. I have a lingering feeling of fondness towards the show and I’m sad it won’t be performed again but maybe that’s better because it means that our small temporary community will stay like that and it won’t and can’t be created again.

The second show of the evening was The Privileged, again created and performed by live artist Jamal Harewood. We sat for a second time in a circle of chairs and faced each other, only this time it wasn’t a panel discussion, it was a polar bear enclosure. We were given a set of instructions to begin in an envelope marked One. It started in a fairly tame manner as you might imagine, but began to deteriorate and became darker as the piece progressed. It’s almost impossible to describe what occurred in the room but it was significant and it was important. .It talked about racial identity in our society so provocatively and brutally. Every performance of this show is different because every temporary community that forms because of it is different and has different rules. It seemed that in a way, we were sitting down and having a very similar discussion to the one we’d had three hours earlier upstairs. Except that things were different because this time it wasn’t theoretical, no matter how much we wanted it to be; it was real. There was a man dressed as a polar bear in the middle of a room of people discussing whether or not it was morally okay to rid him of his polar bear suit. We knew we were being tested – that our limits as humans and our capacity for violence was being challenged (not that changed anything about the situation).

I think it’s important to remember that Jamal describes his show as ‘playful’ and yet I don’t think I have ever felt so deeply affected by a piece of theatre. I didn’t say much when I was in there because I didn’t feel like it was my place. Some part of me said that you don’t have the right to decide what happens to another human being or whether or not he his stripped of his clothing and made vulnerable. I don’t think that makes me any better or worse than anyone else in that room. As I said, I don’t have the answers and I also don’t think there are answers. I simultaneously agreed and profoundly disagreed with every person in that room and I probably wasn’t the only one. It created debate, it tore apart a group of people in their own temporary community. In a way, what was created in the first show was so brutally questioned that I don’t think the two shows will ever be separate again, certainly to me anyway.

Keep talking about it. Don’t let it be something that happened that one time and made you feel sad. And if you haven’t seen The Privileged – go see it.

Also – if you haven’t booked for the final day of Emerge, WHY NOT?! It’s going to be another evening of intensely present theatre so come along if you can. And tell your friends.