Image of an Unknown Young Woman, Gate Theatre

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What’s in an image?

The power and potential deceptiveness of the image has become something of a recurring theatrical theme over the last few years. The most interesting thing by far about Chimerica was its ambivalent relationship with the iconic photograph at its heart, set against the backdrop of an image-saturated world. It followed The Witness, a play in which an image comes back to haunt the man who captured it, and was followed in turn by The Body of an American, which again revolves around the act of witnessing and the images that come to stand for entire conflicts.

Now, in Elinor Cook’s new play Image of an Unknown Young Woman, one small snippet of video footage both sparks and stands for a whole revolutionary movement. A woman – a young, beautiful woman – a young, beautiful woman wearing an eye-catching yellow dress – is shot during a protest. Video images of this act of brutality go viral, concentrating international media attention on a nation whose sufferings had previously been ignored. One pretty girl, one instantly iconic snapshot, does more than hundreds of deaths.

Cook’s revolution unravels in an unspecified country under an unspecified oppressive regime. While that device of “unspecified country” (especially when “Middle Eastern” or, as was the case a couple of decades ago, “Eastern European” is nestled in the middle) can often carry a whiff of racism, here the vagueness feels justified for a change. Although the play has echoes of various protests and revolutions across the world in recent years, it feels as though it could just as easily be happening on the streets of a Western city. The point is both closeness and distance – as hammered home by the parallel narrative of a wealthy Londoner’s frustrated desire to help.

In fact, Image of an Unknown Woman is constructed from a series of parallel narratives, all running along neighbouring tracks but – with one exception – never quite meeting. Ali (Ashley Zhangazha) and his girlfriend Layla (Anjana Vasan) deal with the fallout from uploading the video that sparks the uprising; lonely, rage-filled Candace (Susan Brown) confronts an ethical dilemma as she gets tangled up with a charity – fronted by Nia (Wendy Kweh), an activist who has escaped the regime under attack – that is not what it seems; and one woman (Eileen Walsh) simply picks her way through the carnage in search of her missing mother. Running around and between them is the three-strong chorus (Oliver Birch, Emilie Patry and Isaac Ssebandeke), taking on the murky, shape-shifting roles of leaders, protestors and commentators.

When I spoke to Cook about the play, she uncomfortably described “the girl in the yellow dress” – as the nameless subject of the video becomes known – as a sort of brand. As grotesque as the idea may be, it speaks powerfully to what captures the collective imagination in an information-flooded, fiercely consumerist age. People need a catchy slogan, a bitesize backstory, a striking image. This is also an idea that Christopher Haydon’s production and Fly Davis’ design have latched onto. With the audience configured in traverse, sliced down the middle by a catwalk-like stage, the entire space of the Gate’s auditorium is decked out in hazard-tape black and yellow. Aside from the costumes, the yellow of the young girl’s dress – and subsequently of the popular protest movement – is the only colour permitted to pierce the gloom. Armbands, balloons and scattered sheets of paper are all in keeping with the revolutionary “brand”.

The whole thing is as stylish and carefully coherent as the design, remaining immaculately consistent in its concept even as it evokes the noise and chaos of revolution. On the one hand, the pleasing sharpness of the aesthetic feels a little obscene, as if cleaning up the mess and blood of violent conflict into something almost pretty. Yet for that very reason it’s a brilliant artistic choice. This is what we as observers clutch at, what catches our attention: narratives that knit together, images that are neatly ideological, colours as bright and as vivid and as far away from those troublesome shades of grey as possible.

Haydon’s production is also effortlessly, unshowily diverse in its casting, both reinforcing the everywhere-and-nowhere quality of the play’s unspecified setting and actually looking something like the world beyond the Gate’s walls. Seeing Image of an Unknown Woman on the same day as reading Stephen Berkoff’s comments about the supposed “reverse racism” of ring-fencing the role of Othello for black actors, I was doubly aware of the importance of such a simple act. Sure, let’s have conversations about theatrical representation, but those conversations can’t be stripped of context. Until there’s real representation at all levels – until all theatre reflects the make-up of the UK population as a matter of course – any suggestion that the few roles reserved for BAME performers should be up for grabs for their already over-represented white counterparts smacks either of wilful ignorance or veiled prejudice (and that’s before we even consider the cultural history of blackface and all its racist connotations).

Representation is equally a concern for the play itself, which interrogates not just the impact that images gone viral can achieve today, but also the nature of the images that go viral in the first place. It’s no coincidence that the emblem of this revolution is young, female, attractive, blonde. As Nia puts it, this is an image of violence that is “palatable”, clear-cut – even titillating, as hinted at in the frenzied social media hubbub that opens the play. It’s a stark illustration that only some representations of suffering provoke a response and certain lives continue to be valued over others (as countless news stories in just the past few months alone have demonstrated). Indictments of twenty-first-century society don’t come much bleaker than that.

Photo: Iona Firouzabadi.

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.