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.

All Change Festival

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Within minutes of arriving at the Lyric Hammersmith, I’m climbing into bed with a stranger. Not quite the start I anticipated my Fun Palaces weekend getting off to, but it’s indicative of the playfulness embedded at the heart of the All Change Festival. As Eve Leigh, one of the directors of the festival, tells me, they are interested in work that acknowledges and plays with its own theatricality, exploring the boundaries between genres and forms.

The bed and the stranger are part of The Sleep Project, a one-on-one performance currently being developed by Theatre Absolute. Within moments of awkwardly sliding under the duvet, my bedfellow begins to talk about his chronic insomnia, a sleeplessness that seems to be symptomatic of a broken world. It begins as a monologue, but the edges of the theatrical contract shift and blur, eventually making space for an airing of my own insomniac tendencies. As we’re already sharing a bed, it seems oddly churlish not to be frank in my replies.

It’s a tiny little sliver of a performance, lasting only a few minutes and imparting the same sort of fleeting yet haunting thoughts that occupy that hallucinatory territory between waking and sleep. Theatre Absolute might not smash down any boundaries when it comes to intimate performance – and the way in which they make space for the responses of their solo audience members could still do with a little work – but it’s a gentle introduction to what can be for many an alien and intimidating form.

The same goes for other offerings at the festival. Taking up the philosophy of Fun Palaces, the programming has set out to appeal to as wide and varied an audience as possible, taking in everything from magic tricks to storytelling to a (sadly soggy, as it turned out) bouncy castle. Often, as with genre-defying late night offerings from Patrick Simkins and MiM and Gideon Reeling, a sense of the event is built into work that is part theatre, part music and lots of other parts besides, with the hope of bringing in and surprising new audiences.

On Friday night, the collaboration between artist Patrick Simkins and music producer MiM attempts to cultivate the atmosphere of a gig or club night, using a thumping and occasionally euphoric soundtrack to underscore a comment on the digital culture of sharing. As projected social media images flash up on a screen of paper, audience members are invited to trace over the outlines, which change faster than we reluctant artists can move our sticks of charcoal across the surface. Our overlapping scrawls create two improvised pieces of art that speak messily but eloquently to the compulsive online documenting of our lives.

Interactivity is also key to Tablesale, Gideon Reeling’s offbeat piece on the second night of the festival. In this case, however, the mashing up of different genres and elements leads to confusion – not least about the role of the audience. There’s plenty of standing up, moving around and cheering, as well as some fun with chocolate mice and shots of unidentified alcohol, but it doesn’t quite add up to the promised immersive experience. The show itself, meanwhile, lampoons too many targets at once, leaving everyone in a bit of a muddle. But at least we all go home with a prize.

Back in time to Friday evening, the Lyric cafe. Hastily eating a packet of crisps in lieu of dinner, I watch the space begin to fill up as darkness falls outside. Waiting for the start of Josh Coates’ Particles, it begins to feel for the first time that day that we really are part of a festival, rather than just a clutch of individuals wandering from attraction to attraction around the Lyric. Staging work in the cafe helps too, taking it out of a strictly theatrical space and into a social, informal one.

Particles works perfectly for this setting. Coates’ show is part theatre, part storytelling, part stand-up, all held together by little more than his own ability as a performer. Luckily, Coates is all ease and warmth, lightly switching from careful narration to freewheeling audience address. At the centre of it all is a repeated tale about one man and his seemingly small decisions, opening out into musings on everything from chaos theory to British politics. It feels light while touching on weighty subject matter and somehow, somewhere along the way, it cheerfully battles apathy with optimism.

Given that Particles is all about people and possibilities (and particles, of course), it seems absolutely fitting that it should be performed in these surroundings, where all that is required is speakers and listeners. It follows another storytelling piece, Ingrid Who Quarrelled with Nøkken, with a less successful approach. Storyteller Kristen Blakstad is not short of talent, but her Norwegian folklore inspired tale feels calculated more to showcase her huge range as a performer than to envelope us in the narrative. There’s plenty of physical invention, but to what purpose?

Then again, there doesn’t always need to be a reason for telling stories. On Sunday afternoon, I’m persuaded to join a story making session in a corner of the Lyric cafe, where a small group of us make up ludicrous tales through a process of play. The game involves a title as a starting point and then a free choice of yes or no questions from all participants, yielding increasingly ridiculous narrative twists. It’s like a deliciously silly, extended version of Consequences and has me laughing more than anything else at the festival. It feels like a game Joan Littlewood would approve of. Everyone a storyteller.

 

“What’s art without a bit of wank?” quips Hofesh Shechter. The choreographer, who has spent the last 45 minutes or so of this rainy Saturday afternoon talking about the challenges and intricacies of his creative process, also has the good humour to laugh about it. Yes, this is serious, but it’s a little bit wanky too. And that’s OK.

This conversation, which delves into fascinating depth in its discussion of how Shechter works (apparently it’s a lot like being a tennis player – the isolation, the need to motivate oneself without external assistance), represents one end of the wide spectrum that Leigh and fellow organisers Rachel Parish and Cristina Catalina have curated. At the other end, it’s refreshing to see popular forms given a slight twist and, on the most basic of levels, done well. After long hours I’ll never get back watching excruciating improv comedy on the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a delight to see Nelson David and Chris Rowe do improvisation so effortlessly and often hilariously in Unexpected Human in Bagging Area on Friday evening.

Similarly, I’d be unlikely to see an illusionist under normal circumstances, but Philipp Oberlohr completely wins me round on Saturday night. Chatting to Megan Vaughan afterwards, she suggests that Fun Palaces is doing as much to ground and confound art snobs as it is to coax others into new cultural experiences. As for the latter, it’s hard to tell whether All Change succeeds in that aim of the Fun Palaces manifesto. Family oriented events during the day seem to hook in a larger, more varied audience, whether it’s to gasp at giddying Parkour from the Urban Playground Team or lie in a hammock watching the world go by as part of the Institute for Crazy Dancing’s Lifeboat, but in the evening the participation seems to thin, leaving more of the usual suspects.

One event for which the space is bursting at the seams, however, is the Chris Thorpe and Barrel Organ double bill in the rehearsal room on Saturday night. Both prove – more so than Vacuum Theatre’s messy, muddled Something for Nothing the following day – that sometimes you don’t need much more than bodies and voices in a room to make astonishing theatre. Thorpe once again works wonders with just text, voice and microphone, telling a meandering and many layered tale in High Speed Impact. Test Number One. Thoughts and associations fold into one another, making this short piece much more complex and knotty than it might initially seem.

Barrel Organ’s Nothing, meanwhile, encompasses a huge amount while using very little. It’s now the third time I’ve seen this collection of interlaced monologues, but again it offers new facets, new links to trace between the separate speeches. And because the piece is performed from within the audience, with a newly improvised structure each night, there is always an edge of the unexpected. In this setting, it sends tangible ripples through the audience each time a new performer speaks from among the crowd, completely fitting the formally playful bill outlined by All Change.

Central to the Fun Palaces ethos is making work with the local community as well as just for them. Daytime workshops aside, All Change is arguably a little light on this, but offerings from Fleur Alexander and Hannah Nicklin put the stories of local people at their centre. Alexander’s Wagging Dog Tales takes us away from the Lyric and out into the surrounding streets of Hammersmith, on a walk punctuated with stories shared by local dog walkers. The concept is simple, but it’s the form that really lifts it. In the same way that dogs act as a connection between people, sparking rare conversations between strangers in a busy, atomised city, all of us on the walk are soon chatting easily between stories. Sometimes all it takes is the invitation.

The invitation to offer stories, however, can be harder to accept. As I talk to Alexander on the way back to the Lyric after Wagging Dog Tales, she tells me that many of the people she met were reluctant to speak to her at first, and when they did they often felt that they had nothing to tell. It reminds me of similar experiences that Nicklin has shared in the past. As she puts it, capitalism has stolen our stories to sell them back to us, leaving us with the sensation of being empty handed. What of worth could we possibly have to say?

Songs for Breaking Britain, the piece that Nicklin closes the festival with, defies the media’s lucrative monopoly on our narratives. This punk storytelling show weaves together stories that Nicklin has collected in Bradford, Stockton, South London and now Hammersmith, putting them to music and demanding that we listen to them. It’s funny, compassionate, heartbreaking and very, very loud. I’m reminded a little of the angry, ear-splitting blast of sound that is #TORYCORE, but here the righteous rage – rather appropriately following an open invitation to rant – is just one layer.

“It’s hard to be human, isn’t it?” That one line, uttered by a woman Nicklin spoke to in Stockton, lodges somewhere in my chest during the show. There is lots that is difficult in the show; the voices that Nicklin has collected speak of unemployment, of despair, of fear and lack of inspiration. But there is also joy and hope and huge generosity. This extends to the gig style performance of the piece, which gathers audience members around Nicklin and her band at the centre of the room. And it feels absolutely in keeping with the spirit of both Fun Palaces and All Change. Yes, it’s hard to be human. But it’s that little bit easier when we try being human together.

Photo: Aenne Pallasca.