Why we can’t stop watching violence

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Originally written for the Guardian.

Greg Wohead’s theatre show about the crimes of serial killer Ted Bundy opens innocuously enough. He welcomes his audience, shares some facts and tells a few jokes. Then he gets to the point: “I guess you want to know the juicy stuff.”

The Ted Bundy Project was provoked by Wohead’s experience of stumbling across Bundy’s confession tapes online and finding himself compulsively listening for the “juicy stuff”. “This was the spark of interest,” he says, “feeling at once disgusted and horrified but also really interested and intrigued.”

The same could be said of our own relationship with violence both on and off stage. Today, violence is ubiquitous, beamed worldwide on 24-hour news channels and freely available at the click of a mouse. Society has never been more saturated with images of brutality.

Another new piece of theatre, Image of an Unknown Young Woman, starts with one such instance of violence that goes viral. A woman in a yellow dress is shot by the police and the video footage sparks a popular uprising. Writer Elinor Cook was inspired by events during recent revolutions, but did not specifically set out to address any particular political situation. She explains that she was interested in exploring “how the extinguishing of something bright and beautiful galvanises people”, as well as interrogating “this idea of some violence being, in a sense, titillating”.

Theatre has a complicated relationship with violence. “It goes back to the Greeks, doesn’t it?” suggests Christopher Haydon, who will be directing Image of an Unknown Young Woman at the Gate theatre, London. Greek tragedy kept violent events out of sight, leaving the grisly details to the imagination of the audience. Since then, though, plenty of violence has erupted on stage, from the bloodbath of Titus Andronicus to the shock and gore of the in-yer-face theatre of the 1990s. More recently, Tim Crouch’s in-yer-head show The Author both skewered and questioned the provocative violence of its theatrical forebears at the Royal Court, while directors such as Ellen McDougall have used striking visual metaphors – balloons, water, chalk – to stand in for physical blows.

Nothing, the debut show from the young company Barrel Organ, which is currently on tour, is of the Crouch school. Rather than putting anything shocking on stage, the casual violence that permeates its series of alienated monologues is all described, making the audience complicit in imagining it.

Barrel Organ’s new piece, a work-in-progress entitled Some People Talk About Violence, is upending the concept altogether. “I wanted to write a play about quite insidious, inherent forms of violence that occur within a capitalist system,” says writer Lulu Raczka, who is in the process of collaboratively devising the show with the rest of the company. The violence she refers to is the hidden and often internalised violence of zero-hours contracts and unemployment legislation. “It’s about renaming violence,” says Raczka.

“Theatre permits and enables us to contemplate violence,” argues Lucy Nevitt in her book Theatre & Violence. It’s an arena in which violence can confront us with its reality and provoke us to question the structures that enable it. But its representation also throws up ethical question marks. When does the staging of violence challenge what it shows, and when does it just reiterate it?

“My feeling is that if it’s done in the right way, representation of violence is totally legitimate,” says Haydon. But in his staging of Image of an Unknown Young Woman, torture and abuse will be shown metaphorically rather than literally. This chimes with the non-specificity of Cook’s narrative; rather than “trying to depict a real country in a specific way”, Haydon explains that “it asks you to look at the underlying processes of a revolution” and the ways in which power can “warp reality”.

Wohead, meanwhile, insists that “there’s a blurry line between represented and real”, challenging any clear-cut binary between real and fictional violence. The violence that we see on television, for instance, is “framed in a certain way, it’s filmed by someone”. In researching The Ted Bundy Project, Wohead came across whole online communities built around the sharing of violent images, on the basis that “it’s stuff that is happening in the world and by confronting that we can take steps towards confronting the reality”. But Wohead has his doubts; he’s more interested in prodding at the less savoury motivations behind such voyeurism.

“I think there’s a lot of theatre out there that is pointing a finger at something or someone,” he says. “And sometimes that’s useful, but the way I work … is about pointing the finger back at myself and at all of us. Lots of these structures that we have problems with, we are all complicit in.” Audiences can expect to leave The Ted Bundy Project feeling just as uncomfortable with their own reactions as with the subject matter itself.

For Raczka, the use of violence on stage is complicated. “In order to take it on I think you have to take it on absolutely fully,” she says. “When we’re talking about using violence to shock and to move a plot line along, that’s when I think it becomes very exploitative.” This is the sort of exploitation that Barrel Organ aim to eschew and subvert in Some People Talk About Violence. The company also hopes that the very deliberate use of the word violence in the show’s title will “set up an expectation that can then be dismantled”, allowing a discussion to take place afterwards.

“It’s quite aggressive to actively say that you want someone to leave a theatre and discuss the issues you’ve brought up,” says Raczka, casting the idea of a “violent play” in a new light. “That’s surely what all theatre is about, but this is going at that full pelt.”

Photo: Alex Brenner.

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