We Want You to Watch, National Theatre

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Ever since seeing Alice Birch’s searing Revolt. She said. Revolt again last summer, I’ve thought of it as the feminist play for my generation. A generation raised with the base assumption of equality into a world we slowly realise has been cruelly mis-sold to us. A generation oddly cautious about the word “feminism”. A generation that briefly thought maybe the battles had been fought and won, when actually we just have to fight ever more insidious forces. For this generation and the ones immediately following it, this is the play that I want other young women – and men – to discover and have their minds blown by. It’s raw and angry and sad and fierce and funny and lost and searching and hopeless and hopeful.

We Want You to Watch is in the same vein. But where Revolt wrestled with everything it means to be a woman today, from the politics of the bedroom to the ever-present threat of violence, Birch’s new collaboration with performance duo RashDash isolates just one issue: pornography. A deliberate provocation, it starts from an extreme position, as Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen’s characters set out to ban all porn – the good, the bad and the ugly. As one of the pair puts it, “we want it obliterated”. Rip it up and start again.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. We Want You to Watch is conscientiously self-aware, problematising its demands at every turn. There are interjections, bathed in sudden, glaring light: “Can we just say we’re completely pro sex”; “This has just been about heterosexual porn – that is a failure. This is not an apology”. Greenland and Goalen’s objections to pornography are met with eloquent defences, turning the argument over and over. What hard evidence is there of a link between violent porn and violent behaviour? How can you control the choices of consenting adults? Isn’t the banning of porn just censorship, pure and simple?

This is all explored in episodic fashion, leaping from one surreal scenario to the next. First, Greenland and Goalen are cops in the interrogation room, trying to prove the connection between torture and murder and the watching of violent porn. Then they’re in ballgowns, petitioning the Queen, then confronting the little boy of today who will be the porn addict of tomorrow. Failure follows failure, while the supply of porn – packaged in value cans, cheap and on demand – constantly renews and multiplies around them in Oliver Townsend’s simple but striking set.

Watching it, I think of the bit in Fleabag where Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s character clicks joylessly through porn, listing all the different genres with empty, staring eyes: gay, Asian, anal. I think of the ‘Porn Girl’ monologue in Nothing and the speaker’s guilty, scared admission that she was turned on by “the bits where something felt wrong”. I think of Bryony Kimmings in Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, plucking out her niece’s eyes to protect her from seeing all the fucked up nastiness that’s just a swipe and a click away at any moment.

All that and more surfaces in the gaudy metaphor of We Want You to Watch. As ever in RashDash’s work, ideas are expressed as much through bodies as through language. As the subject of Greenland and Goalen’s interrogation rebukes their arguments, the two performers buckle to the ground, limbs contorted in defeat. Later, expressing what watching porn feels like, their bodies thrash violently across the stage, the effect vivid and queasy. The pornography that seeps into everything is never seen, but its imprint leaves an indelible stain on the movement. Birch’s words can bruise too, especially in a heartbreaking speech delivered to the next generation.

The further Greenland and Goalen pursue their mission, though, the more strained and stretched the metaphors become. Eventually, they track down a teenage internet hacker, frantically defending their position while responding to ever more ridiculous demands. There’s only so far the dramaturgy of failure can go, and as the piece goes on it verges dangerously close to tedium, its once fierce arguments now weary and sluggish. There’s an aptness in that, of course, but it increasingly struggles to land. Beginning to feel restless, I wonder if the hard-line starting point is as much of a burden as a provocation.

That said, there’s an appealing boldness in staking out an uncompromising position, in refusing to accept “the shittest consolation prize on the planet”. In the unapologetic yet problematised stance of We Want You to Watch, there are echoes of both Revolt and RashDash’s last show Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, which tussled just as painfully with the idea of romantic love and the suffocating demand to find “The One”. In the tackling of another feminist issue, I was hoping for a collision of those two approaches, each complex and messy and exhilaratingly theatrical. We Want You to Watch isn’t quite it. But like Revolt, it prises these conversations open, using anger and a stubborn refusal to back down as a way of pushing forward its central debate. And even in its failure, it dares to dream of a new start.

Rip it up and start again.

Photo: Richard Davenport.

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