We Want You to Watch, National Theatre


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.

Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, Soho Theatre

“I would like to talk to the capitalists about money, but they only wanted to tell love stories” René Pollesch


For as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve been pretty independent. Less in a loud, Destiny’s Child, “throw your hands up” way, more in a quiet, fairly content, getting on with it way. Most of the time, I think I’m OK with the idea of being alone. Yet still there’s this voice socially hardwired into the back of my brain somewhere that periodically shouts “OH HOLY FUCK IF I DON’T SETTLE DOWN SOON I’M GOING TO DIE ALONE SURROUNDED BY CATS”. And no matter how coolly indifferent I think I am to it, I can never completely silence it.

There’s a scene in Alice Birch’s brilliant Revolt. She said. Revolt again. which articulates all of my ambivalence about marriage in ways that I hadn’t even articulated to myself before seeing it. In it, a woman responds to her boyfriend’s marriage proposal with meticulous logic, picking apart the ideology knitted around this institution thread by thread. What her boyfriend has actually just said that he wants, she concludes, is to turn her into “a thing to be traded”.*

I’m thinking about both of these things as I’m watching Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, RashDash’s latest show. About that culturally embedded demand to MATE NOW WHILE YOU STILL CAN and about the idea that marriage, this state we’re all taught to aspire to, is essentially about ownership. I’m not particularly comfortable with either idea. No, more than that: as a feminist, I feel I should probably reject both – the voice and the institution.

But it’s not quite as easy as that, as RashDash recognise. Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered is about those conflicting desires to be independent and to be secure; about what we really ask of one another in modern relationships; about whether we should be asking something different, something more. It’s about different kinds of love and how our culture values them. It’s about the idea of “The One” and it’s about every love song you ever heard on the radio.

Bea and Dee are best friends. They love each other. They used to live together, but now Bea has left to live with her boyfriend. Dee misses her. Dee wants her back. Why can’t they just stay together forever?

Representations of female friendship are nothing new, but RashDash dramatically shift the ground on which this one stands. Bea and Dee are no pale imitation of Carrie Bradshaw and her mates in Sex and the City, dissecting relationships over brunch while sporting the latest pair of Manolo Blahniks. RashDash even dare to suggest (*gasp*) that female happiness might rest on more than footwear and fornication. Why do romantic pairings have to be the relationships that define our lives?

There’s something at once bracing, optimistic and sadly resigned about the central suggestion that the two women bind their lives together – not as lovers, but as partners nonetheless. The whole in sickness and in health thing, as Dee puts it. Right from the start, however, it’s clear that this experiment is unlikely to succeed. The hopeful gesture of a new way of relating to one another is balanced by the social and cultural pressures that make it unthinkable. That voice that screams “GET MARRIED OR DIE ALONE”.

RashDash tell this story with a blend of blunt dialogue and striking physicality. In one moment, performers Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen are rubbing their heads against one another, nuzzling like animals. In the next, they are rolling and jumping, flinging one another around the space. The struggles of their friendship and the pressures of the surrounding world are played out physically, the challenges and disagreements unmistakable in their bodily collisions.

And although the speech exchanged between the two women is sharp and often funny, the most powerful moments play out in the visual and the abstract. In one hilarious yet heartbreaking scene, Greenland yells song lyrics into a microphone (“You’re still the one I run to, the one that I belong to”; “If you’re not the one then why does my hand fit yours this way?”) while Goalen runs blindly and fitfully around the stage, covered in a plastic sheet that is wedding veil, suffocation device and shroud all at once. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful visual metaphor for the stifling demands of romantic love, as shouted out from every love song, every romcom, every thoughtlessly saccharine Valentine’s Day card.

Andy Field and Ira Brand’s put your sweet hand in mind – which I fell giddily head over heels for – was originally born from the desire to make a show about love “in which no one falls in love”. In the end the piece that they made, while it was also about other loves, didn’t quite fit that initial bill. Somehow, somewhere along the line, romantic love crept in. It’s hard to keep out.

In Oh, I Can’t Be Bothered, Dee and Bea make a similar discovery. Turning one’s back on the promise of romantic love and the fiction of “The One” is no small feat. Given that it seeps into every last corner of our culture, it’s unsurprising that we find it so hard to get away from. As Field once put it, “love turns everything into a love story”.

But voicing the desire for a way of living that is not solely constructed around a romantic partner feels important, both in the context of feminism and in the simple sense of how we relate to one another. If we can uncouple our sense of identity and wellbeing from an inward-looking dependence on one other human being, perhaps we can begin to look outwards to each other, our communities, the world we live in. We can take joy in other kinds of love, kinds of love that aren’t bound up in a lucrative commercial package.

At the moment, however, it remains difficult to imagine. If Dee and Bea fail, and if put your sweet hand in mine fails, then the real failure lies with the society that plants that nagging voice in our heads.

*Incidentally, Alice Birch is currently working with RashDash on two new projects, which is very good news indeed.