This was written for Criticism & Love, a TinyLetter I've been writing for the past six months with Andy Field, and I wouldn't normally cross-post it, except that I've been thinking recently that it's time to stop using this blog and build a different web home, one that more accurately reflects where I am in life now, rather than where I was in April 2011. I have one more thing to publish here which might take me a month or so to put together, and then if I can sort my shit out I'll start 2019 with the new site. Or not. Maybe it's fine to just scatter wildflower seeds across the wasteland of the internet without claiming a whole garden as mine. Anyway. If you like this and want to read more of the Criticism & Love essays, please sign up here: it might help persuade someone to publish them in an actual book one day. Even if you don't, still sign up, cos Andy's essays are fucking brilliant. OK, here goes:
What is the point of theatre?
I mean, really?
Please don't think that calling what you make or see or write about or have an interest in performance art means I'm not asking you too.
Here are some of the things that have happened in the world in the four weeks since I last sat down to write one of these C&L essays:
Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as the 114th Justice of the Supreme Court, a lifelong role, despite allegations of sexual abuse against him and his readiness to limit abortion rights in the US.
Jair Bolsonaros was elected President of Brazil, despite expressions of homophobia and misogyny and his readiness to raze the Amazon rainforest, killing indigenous populations through displacement in the short term, future generations through climate destruction in the longer term.
The New York Times reported that Donald Trump wants to create a legal definition of sex as "a biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth", erasing trans identities.
As reported in the Guardian, the IPCC (the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warned that humans have 12 years left to limit temperature rises “to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people”.
The Guardian also reported that “humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970” (figure provided by WWF).
A white supremacist man opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 Jewish people aged between 54 and 97.
Another white man was filmed verbally abusing a black woman on a Ryanair plane, later claiming, eroneously, that he is not a racist person.
Twenty traders of international backgrounds working in Ridley Road market in Dalston, east London, were issued evictions orders and given two weeks to comply. They were granted a last-minute reprieve but at present it's unknown whether that will last beyond 2018.
Residents and campaigners attempting to save the community-run Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford from destruction/redevelopment were violently evicted by police and security staff working on council orders.
And this is just what I've skimmed from the surface of my twitter feed.
There's a show by Breach called The Drill, from 2017, in which the three performers – Ellice Stevens, Amarnah Amuludun and Luke Lampard, directed by Billy Barrett, with video by Dorothy Allen-Pickard – take part in a series of training courses, sold to the public, to learn what they might do in the event of a terrorist attack, a bomb threat, a shooting, etc. “Everything feels very uncertain right now,” says Luke. “So we wanted to do something to make ourselves feel safer.” And so they attend workshops, imagine, improvise, role-play, act. Time and again the instructors impress on them the importance of realism. “Realism is everything,” says one. “If it's not realistic, if the training's not realistic, then people don't have the fear.” If you've felt that fear, stress, pressure in a training environment, it won't shock you when you feel it in a real environment. You need to immerse yourself, really take part, more effectively to learn. “The way people learn best is in a safe and controlled environment,” says another. “So while we will make it as realistic as we possibly can in this circumstance, it will be safe and it will be controlled.”
These are at once rehearsals and acts of theatre; as theatre they are events with the potential to produce catharsis, a safe and controlled experience of fear in a safe and controlled environment. Which, for Aristotle, was really the point of theatre. The growing feeling through The Drill, however, is that all this training is pointless: not only does it not diminish fear, it exacerbates a latent suspicion of other humans, and with it a latent othering and racism. And if the training is pointless, maybe theatre is pointless too. Certainly – and this might be a delicious in-joke – “realistic” theatre.
There's a show by Breach called The Beanfield, from 2015, in which the six performers – Billy Barrett, Grace Holme, Anna Himali Howard, Max Kennedy, Ellice Stevens and Tom Wright, directed by Billy and, on video, film-maker Dorothy Allen-Pickard – re-enact but also investigate the ethics around re-enacting the clash between police and military on the one side, and on the other a motley convoy of people including activists, non-violent protestors and peaceful worshippers of the solstice heading for the Stonehenge Free Festival in June 1985. The clash was a climax reached after months of aggression directed at the travelling community camped there. The performers were students at University of Warwick at the time, and had been involved in their own clash with police, called in to break up student protests against the neoliberal profit drive of their own education.
The group wanted to make this show, Ellice says early on, to do something real. “So real.” A specialist in historical re-enactment warns them to “be careful” because the real of performance can all too quickly become the real of life: pretend violence becoming actual violence, pretend hate becoming actual hate. The man who now owns the field where the clash happened refuses to let them perform there, because he's afraid of what trouble – real – they might stir up. They find a field and go ahead anyway; Grace gets hit and tells her friends: “This is really fucking painful.” There is video playing of the re-enactment and it looks really fucking painful, feels actually painful to watch. “It's really fucking horrible,” Grace says again. And it is. I mean, it's only theatre. But it feels horrible. Because it's also, as Dorothy says on the video, “a real event”. Historical real. Present real. Now real.
There's a show by Breach called Tank, from 2016, in which the four performers – Ellice Stevens, Victoria Watson, Joe Boylan and Craig Hamilton, directed by Billy and Ellice, again with video by Dorothy – question what of historical events can really be pieced together from the documentary material and memories that remain. The story of Tank is of a research centre on the US Virgin Island of St Thomas in which, during the early 1960s, a series of experiments was conducted in teaching dolphins to speak English. It's also a story about what a particular dolphin, Peter, might have been thinking, feeling, trying to communicate during these experiments. Because who can know? Dolphins have an “alien brain”, it's said at the beginning; that's why they were chosen for the research. Perhaps if this alien brain could be taught English, so could all the aliens who might be discovered during the space race – but so too might all the aliens who live on the earth itself, all those other, foreign people whose customs are, within the dictates of xenophobia, so unfamiliar and terrifying.
There's a book by academic Nicholas Ridout called Theatre & Ethics that considers how theatre “participates in a process of managing the way people think about their relationships with one another and their potential for creating societies in which everyone can enjoy freedom as well as social solidarity”. He begins with Plato, who lambasted theatre because “it peddles dangerously pessimistic illusions that encourage a fearful audience to submit to inexorable fate rather than struggle to imagine the world differently”. Throughout Ridout raises the question “How shall I act?”, but always with the caveat that theatre might be an odd place to come looking for that, given the relationships between ethics and truth, theatre and pretending. He resists theatre that presents a “universal concept of 'human' which … can easily lapse into 'humans like me'”, seeking out instead performance that challenges “our conception of what it is to have a human body, and to have intentions that make it do things … challeng[ing] the human spectator to consider what it is that allows him or her to recognise another as a fellow human”. He searches for that “moment of ethical encounter” in performance that can “be the basis for thought, feeling or action within the sphere of politics”. That, for him, is the point of theatre.
Here is a full list of the works I've encountered in a theatre or theatre setting in the four weeks since I last sat down to write one of these C&L essays:
Risk Lab, by Ada Mukhina, a participatory performance that invited its audience to decide whether they wanted to hear a text written by Ada that might be censored in Russia, where she is from, or in London/the UK, and rather than delivering on that vote, asked a series of questions about why each person had chosen the way they did.
The Malady of Death, written by Alice Birch, directed by Katie Mitchell, contemplating the mesh of relationships between masculinity, emotion(lessness), pornography and misogyny.
Summit, by Andy Smith (twice, for work), a brief rallying cry for better talking, and better listening, and more readiness to change, to do the work of social/political/economic change, performed in three languages: English, British Sign Language and (in this performance) Malay (although I've also seen it when the third language was Farsi, spoken by a young man, and miss the complexity that brought).
Burgerz, by Travis Alabanza, in which the burger thrown at Travis on Waterloo Bridge by a white man affronted by what he perceived as their failure to conform to patriarchal notions of gender becomes a metaphor through which those notions can be interrogated and smashed.
ear for eye by debbie tucker green, which is phenomenal, a survey of black life within white supremacy, meticulous in expression as it travels between the personal and the systemic, poetic in its protest, as elegant as it is angry, a defining play not only of this decade but – I'm sure of this – the decades to come.
Fallen Fruit, by Katherina Radeva of Two Destination Language, in which she traces the complex experiences of herself, as a seven-year-old child, and the adults around her in Bulgaria in the days before and immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall: the basic sufficiency before, the deprivation after; the tedium before, the freedom after, the strained commonality before, the pained inequality after.
Lock Her Up, three audio works, by Sabrina Mahfouz, Rachel Mars and Paula Varjack, each responding to aspects of women's experience in prison. I sat in a now disused prison cell beneath Leeds Town Hall and listened to the pieces in that order, experiencing mounting anxiety as I moved from Sabrina as a scintillating game-show host asking furious questions about incarceral maternity and motherhood, to Rachel's whispers in the silence of solitary confinement, and Paula's story of an imminent future in which immigrant women are increasingly detained as they no longer conform to invisibly shifting immigration policy, which ends with one such woman beating a prison guard with a pole, his skin and muscles collapsing with a squelch, squelch, squelch.
All those plus I'm a Phoenix, Bitch by Bryony Kimmings, No One Is Coming To Save You by new company This Noise, a merging of Othello and Macbeth by Jude Christian, Paper Cinema's Macbeth, a musical version of Twelfth Night (you bet it was too much fucking Shakespeare), Andy Smith's The Preston Bill for the sixth time, two R&D rehearsal sharings and two work-in-progress performances of #thebabyquestion by Paula Varjack, Luca Rutherford and Catriona James, Mouth Open Story Jump Out by Polar Bear, The Day I Fell Into a Book by Lewis Gibson, Charlie Ward by Sound & Fury, Frankenstein by BAC's Beatbox Academy, Chekhov's First Play by Dead Centre for the second time, and yes, you're right, I do see an awful lot of theatre. I'm choosing the word awful for its double meaning.
In the midst of all that, I also saw It's True, It's True, It's True by Breach.
It's True is another re-enactment play, of the trial, in 1612, of Agostino Tassi, the older man and established artist accused by painter Artemesia Gentileschi (a teenager at the time) of rape. The word accused there should not imply I don't believe her. It's quite different from Breach's other work: there's no video, and the three performers – Ellice Stevens, Kathryn Bond and Harriet Webb, directed by Billy Barrett, Dorothy Allen-Pickard joining them as dramaturg – never slip out of character to speak as themselves, so there is no metatheatrical discussion of how or why they're making each dramatic choice, or what the effect of those choices might be. This time the lines between verbatim speech transcribed by court notaries and imagined text are entirely blurred. So what is true, exactly?
It's certainly not true that the three women never slip out of character, because they are constantly slipping into and out of a series of characters: Artemesia is played by Ellice, Tassi by Harriet, and Artemesia's female neighbour Tuzia by Kathryn, but they also take turns to play the judge, Tassi's friends, other witnesses in the case, Bible characters painted by Artemesia, and more. Nor is it entirely true that they never play themselves: in the presentation of a woman struggling to be believed, fighting against a patriarchal system that sets man's word above woman's, that internalises misogyny to such an extent that women become the judge and jury of each other, Ellice and Harriet and Kathryn never stop playing themselves.
Another thing that's not true is that they don't question or justify their artistic choices: it's just that their choices snap into focus through an astonishing speech Artemesia makes explaining why her painting Susanna and the Elders is different to depictions of the story by male artists of the day. In men's eyes Susanna was courting the male gaze, asking for it. Asking for it. Whereas in Artemesia's eyes Susanna was unable to escape that gaze; she might turn away from it, push back against it, but such is the aggression of masculinity she is subject to it none the less.
How did the relationship between Artemesia and Tassi begin? Tassi was asked by her father to teach his daughter perspective. Perspective. The word is like a punchline – or, as Hannah Gadsby lays the emphasis in Nanette, a punch line – to a really bad joke.
There's a book by Rebecca Solnit called Hope in the Dark in which she describes world events as taking place on the stage of a theatre. “The traditional versions of history, the conventional sources of news encourage us to fix our gaze on that stage,” she says. But she draws her readers' gaze to the “shadowy spaces” off-stage, to “the aisles, backstage, outside, in the dark, where other powers are at work”. What she's particularly interested in is “the power of a story and of a storyteller” to move across these hidden places in the margins, because “politics arises out of the spread of ideas and the shaping of imaginations”, and what better way to spread ideas and shape imaginations than through stories?
For Solnit, writing is no different from activism: both are acts of faith, because their effects are indirect, delayed and often invisible. “An essay, a book, is one statement,” she writes, “in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen silent long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you're gone and never reach your ears, if anyone hears you in the first place.” And while “changing the story isn't enough in itself … it has often been foundational to real changes”.
Now I'm no Solnit, however much I wish I were. And when I ask what the point is of theatre, what I'm also or possibly really asking is: what is the point of (me) being there and (me) writing about it, and beneath that I guess what I'm really asking is what is the point of me? I'm thinking about this sharply not only because it feels like that theatre of world events is on fire right now and always has been, the gaze of the audience drawn not by the limelights as Solnit suggests but the glare of blazing flame, but because the response my words make to it keeps feeling so fucking paltry. Whatever I'm writing about, I repeat and repeat the same words – patriarchy, capitalism, neoliberalism, inequality are some of the key ones – as though intoning them as a mantra might do anything to dismantle their power. This is the sixth essay I've written for C&L (number 6.5 if you want to be precise), and each one has basically said the same thing: patriarchy is bad, capitalism is bad, neoliberalism is bad, inequality is bad, feminism hasn't solved any of this, fuck. What good is that doing in the world?
As I muddle through identity crisis number 17,962, there's something in Solnit's description of the long conversation, the call and the response, that I want to hold on to – hold faith in – not least because it's echoed in the final section of Ridout's Theatre & Ethics. Quoting a text by Adrian Heathfield, Ridout describes that “moment of ethical encounter” as “a reciprocal and unending cycle of call-and-response, of gift and counter-gift”. And “the act of critical writing about performance” is part of that: a recognition of “response-ability”. The ethical encounter couldn't happen without the witness, the spectator, the person in the audience “called upon to recognise that there is a relationship between what is shown in the theatre and their own experience of the world”, and “invited to do something about it”.
I have to keep returning to ideas like this because it's all the self-justification I have for the amount of time I spend, physically and mentally, in theatre, and for the fear that all I'm really doing is entertaining myself and hiding from life, never participating in what might genuinely be described as “action within the sphere of politics”. I have to keep reminding myself that I share Solnit's belief in stories, and belief in the need for different stories, and that's what I'm doing with the response-ability theatre encourages in me, trying to tell different stories.
It's True, It's True, It's True is a story of a rape. It is a story of a woman who would have married her rapist to maintain her dignity. He refused, and so she was able to do something better. She was able to paint. To paint stories told by men from a female perspective. At the end she enters another of her paintings, one of her many versions of the slaughter of Holofernes by Judith. Here's what the stage directions say about her entrance: “Judith appears in a golden dress. She is a rockstar, a guardian angel, the embodiment of rage.” And here's what the character says: “The names of my foremothers may be forgotten but yours and mine will never be.” Because it's not true that It's True is the story of a rape, a story that seeks to be a silencing and a full stop. It's the story of female anger, female defiance, female strength.
It's a story that needs to be told and retold and retold because patriarchy too is angry, defiant and strong, but more than that, patriarchy is powerful, in power, perpetually in power. And none of us know when this will change.
I've never asked or read why Billy, Dorothy and Ellice chose the name Breach for their company, but it makes me think of that rallying cry Shakespeare has Henry V deliver on the point of battle: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.” Only here, the breach is not a war, but a space in which to rage, yes, argue, yes, confront, yes, but also care, speculate, listen, think, see things from a different angle, reshape ideas around community. All of which, really, is the point of theatre. Isn't it?
With that, dear friends, once more unto the breach we go.