Why So Shocked? The Art of Unsettling

A nightly explosion is taking place on the stage of Islington’s Old Red Lion Theatre. As Greenhouse Theatre Company’s performance of Mercury Fur enters its devastating, loud and bloody conclusion, audience members alternately lean forwards and recoil; heaving, audible sobs echo around the intimate, claustrophobic space; a couple of theatregoers seem on the verge of complete breakdown. Never have I felt an audience so unified in tension, shock and emotional release.

The visceral punch of Mercury Fur is nothing new. When the play premiered in 2005, it was quickly labelled as Philip Ridley’s most controversial work to date, and Faber and Faber famously refused to publish the playscript on the grounds of its shocking content. It was a reaction that continues to infuriate Ridley. Speaking in an interview with Exeunt’s Tom Wicker, the playwright says, perhaps flippantly but nonetheless incisively, “if I’d reinvented Mercury Fur as a lost Greek tragedy and set it in Thebes, no one would have batted an eyelid”.

It only takes a cursory glance at the canon of Greek tragedy to prove Ridley’s point; Medea, for instance, kills her own children, while Oedipus famously sleeps with his mother and plucks out his own eyes. The significant fact to remember about Greek drama, however, is its origin in myth. The theatre of Ancient Greece was born as a way of exploring the contemporary problems and issues ailing the Athenians, but through a medium that was divorced from the citizens’ everyday lives. We might ask ourselves how much has really changed since the days of Sophocles and Euripides. Do we continue to be more comfortable with depictions of human cruelty when they are one step removed from our immediate experience?

In order to investigate the unique fascination and repulsion provoked by “shock theatre”, as we might label it for the purposes of this blog, it may be helpful to consider this within the wider context of other cultural mediums that also deal with acts of human brutality and the uncomfortable themes of death and decay. Two such genres that seem particularly relevant at present are dystopian fiction and film, which have seen an extraordinary resurgence in the teenage market, and the confrontational art that emerged in the 1990s and is exemplified by Damien Hirst’s current retrospective at the Tate Modern.

Firstly, dystopian fiction may be nothing new, but it is undoubtedly experiencing a fresh renaissance and a new legion of fans. This can in part be attributed to the ubiquity of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy of books, now also a box office smashing film franchise, although this is only part of a larger, thriving teenage market for dystopian narratives. Of course, as proved by the enduring popularity of novels such as 1984 and more recent hits like The Road, it is not only the youngsters with a taste for the post-apocalyptic, but it is the hunger of the young adult market for this challenging fare that has brought dystopia right back to the forefront of the literary marketplace.

In her article for the New Yorker, Laura Miller argues that the appeal of dystopian fiction for younger readers derives from the way in which these novels, however far-fetched, identify with the realities of teenage experience. Miller also points out that the major way in which dystopian fiction differs from its older sibling is in its conclusion: young adult dystopias favour salvation and catharsis, whereas the grown-up version typically ends in crushing despair. But in either case, no matter how gruesome – The Hunger Games hinges around children fighting to the death for public entertainment; in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak novel The Road, a baby is roasted on a spit – readers and viewers, young and old alike, happily gobble it up.

The work of the media-dubbed Young British Artists of the 1990s, meanwhile, is similarly gruesome and provocative, though not as easily accepted. When Hirst first unleashed his formaldehyde creations on the world, the art establishment did not know what to make of them, initiating a stunned disgust that would accompany the rise of Hirst and his peers. There are, in fact, many parallels that can be drawn between the work of these artists and the In-Yer-Face theatre movement that surfaced at the same time and was characterised by the plays of writers such as Ridley, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, parallels that are helpfully highlighted in Stewart Pringle’s excellent essay for Exeunt. The art, however, has seemingly mellowed with age in a way that the theatre has not, at least in the eyes of onlookers.

As Pringle ultimately argues, the output of the likes of Hirst and Tracey Emin has lost its shock and the “theatrical frisson” that made its name. Visual works of art are crystallized, static, trapped within the moment of their creation, and as such the shock of their reception is dulled by the passing of the years. This is something that Ridley, himself a visual artist as well as a writer, is acutely aware of. As he puts it in the interview with Wicker, “young audiences, families, will go to the Tate Modern and happily walk through sliced up sheep, pickled sharks and unmade beds with tampons on them. But do something like that in a stage play and people are outraged and you’re a ‘shockmaster’.”

It is clear, then, that theatre is still capable of ruffling critical feathers. The most striking recent example of this was Daily Mail critic Quentin Letts’ outraged diatribe against the provocative output of subsidised theatres, which he depicted as profane “gobblers” of public money. Expressing his opinion is one thing, and is after all what he is paid to do, but Letts was also allegedly involved in some shocking behaviour of his own. According to playwright Dan Rebellato, the critic tried to persuade the Lyric Hammersmith’s private donors to withdraw their money after the theatre staged a revival of Edward Bond’s seminal post-war play Saved.

If true, Letts’ actions are disgraceful, but that is a rant for another time, and one that Rebellato articulates far more eloquently than I could hope to. Placing this to one side, it is worth considering just what made Letts so incensed. The critic expresses concern about the decline of “communal decency” and distaste for the prevalence of bad language and violence, both of which are no doubt considered offensive by some theatregoers, in which case they have the choice not to buy a ticket or to leave before the end. We are, like Letts, all entitled to our own opinions and tastes.

Yet Letts’ argument seems to hinge on boredom. He admits that he fell victim to a “huge yawn” during the baby stoning scene in Saved, and states that in today’s theatre, “rape, murder, nudity and profanity have lost their shock value”, becoming “almost de rigueur”. However, his actions, as Rebellato points out, tell a different story. Likewise, the collective reaction to the denouement of Mercury Fur – a reaction which, by all accounts, was typical of the entire run – stands as testimony that the play has lost none of its vicious sting. Theatre such as this has the same bruising impact as it always has, and this is what Letts, beneath his affectation of ennui, seems to object to.

The answer to why theatre retains the ability to shock and to provoke such vehement reactions would appear to lie in the nature of its liveness and immediacy. Or, as Pringle puts it, plays such as Mercury Fur are “revived through the living, in a living space which has grown out of its own era”. It is perhaps not what is actually being portrayed that we struggle to accept as much as the proximity – both physical and psychological. Whether safely enclosed within the pages of a book or behind a cinema screen, or set in a comfortingly distant dystopian wasteland or mythical Greek realm, we can swallow our dose of cruelty when its side-effects seem not to touch us. It is only when these dark imaginings are diagnosed as a very real presence in human nature within today’s society that the cultural arbiters of that society shun it, deride it, even condemn it. Theatre should, in the words of Hamlet, “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature”, but apparently only when that reflection is not an ugly one.

Reflection is something that Letts also seems to have a problem with in his article. He asks whether we should “take the view that, like Shakespearean court jesters, subsidised thespians are there to hold a mirror to our failings”. The answer, it seems to me even if not to Letts, is yes. Great theatre can also, as Letts suggests it might, aspire to change society in some way, but his belief that theatre makers should “use their power to mend our country instead of simply ‘reflecting’ it” feels like backward logic. Only once we have made the diagnosis can we turn our minds to finding a cure.

As depressing as it may sound, there seems to me little doubt that this shock theatre does reflect a buried, ugly side of human nature. Who was not, like Narcissus, both intrigued and enchanted by their own image when first viewing it in a mirror? I suspect that what disgusts and repels us about disturbing works of art is also what attracts us; we see something of ourselves, or at least of the human condition, in what is presented before us. Dystopian narratives and shock theatre alike speak to an aspect of human nature that is as unsettling as it is irrefutable.

While Elliot’s recollection of riots on the streets in Mercury Fur feels chillingly prescient in the light of the events of last summer, the issues dealt with by this and similar plays are not, as their critics seem to think they are, exclusive to this particular moment in time. Society may currently feel particularly broken, but these are universal, timeless concerns; as director Paul Davies says in reference to A Clockwork Orange – another controversial, dystopian narrative – “civilisation is a veneer”. All that the likes of Ridley are doing is chipping away at that veneer to expose the darkness beneath. And that darkness, as made clear by our ongoing fascination with works of art such as those discussed above, has always been there.