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.

Nothing, NSDF

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*Obligatory disclaimer: I know some of the company pretty well and had heard a fair amount about this show before seeing it, so I can’t claim an entirely distanced position. As far as possible, however, I approached Nothing as I would any other piece of theatre – if perhaps with a little more foreknowledge than the average audience member. Also, for anyone who hasn’t seen the show, it gets a bit spoilery …*

The thoughtful complexity of Barrel Organ Theatre’s Nothing begins right in its title. A gift to pun-happy theatre critics (I direct you to Noises Off‘s excellent selection of headlines), it’s a joke and a statement; a raised middle finger to both theatrical convention and ideological austerity. The single word suggests a void – emotional, ideological, physical. It is also a fierce reference to the current political landscape, in more ways than one: faced with disappearing funding, young companies such as Barrel Organ are forced to quite literally do something with nothing, while nothing is equally a fair description of what these students and recent graduates might feel the world holds for them. The title is an arch reference to the show’s minimal staging and perhaps even a barrier erected against audiences’ quest for meaning.

The multiple layers of suggestion that can be peeled away from these two simple syllables begin to suggest the subtle intelligence of Barrel Organ’s show. Written by Lulu Raczka and created in close collaboration with director Ali Pidsley and the whole company, the deceptively simple structure consists of eight overlapping monologues. Each riffs on a different experience of disconnection in modern society, casually punctuated with sexual and physical violence. This is a world where human shit is gleefully deposited on doorsteps and limbs are hacked off in darkened alleyways. The play’s various transgressions and atrocities, however, demand to be imagined rather than seen. As in The Author, Tim Crouch’s unsettling in-yer-head shocker, we are the ones left manufacturing images of rape and assault, painting nasty pictures in our heads.

The show’s relationship with an audience, however, goes further than this act of mental complicity. In Nothing‘s staging, all physical barriers between performers and audience are dissolved. Unlike in The Author, in which the performers took up residence among the audience, here we are all one amorphous mass gathered together in the space. One by one, the performers reveal themselves, speaking as if seized by a sudden thought. One talks of childhood abuse, another of pointless acts of theft, another of a violent act witnessed on public transport. They are compelled to share, yet awkward in their candour. The monologues are intercut, sometimes by way of interruption, at other times stepping in to fill a silence. When not speaking, each member of the cast retreats into their own sealed bubble, not once acknowledging the speech of one another. These self-conscious outpourings are stubbornly staged as monologues, each addressed to an “audience” rather than to a collection of individuals who might answer back.

While it’s not necessary as an audience member to know the means by which these fractured monologues are constructed, it does shed some additional light on what Barrel Organ are doing and highlight the impressive skill of the ensemble. The piece is significantly different every time it is performed, and the company stress that it is never finished. This is thanks to the fluid order of the monologues, which is not fixed but instead improvised on the spot each night. Performers decide when to speak, when to stop, and in some instances what to say (some performers have learned more than one monologue and only settle on which one to deliver during the performance). Therefore each performance is live in the most unpredictable of senses, generating a tangible charge in the air. It’s a bold, brave, and for the most part brilliant creative choice.

There are, unsurprisingly, some difficulties that come bundled up with this risky staging decision. Containing the audience while also allowing for their input is a challenge, producing the odd stumble, and the rules of interaction are uncertain. But the instability of this performer/audience contract is also what makes this piece so exciting, forcing spectators to remain alert. About halfway through, unusually conscious of my position as an audience member, I begin to regret my default retreat to a chair and wish that I had decided to roam freely around the space as the performers do. It’s striking, as well, how adeptly the eight performers deal with the surprises that this situation inevitably throws up, smoothly absorbing audience responses and environmental noise into the texture of the piece.

In fact, the whole thing comes across as remarkably natural. Raczka has an enviable gift for capturing the cadences of everyday speech in her writing, while the ownership that the performers feel over their monologues is clear in their simple, unaffected delivery. We can almost believe, as a performer fidgets and looks into our eyes, that we really are hearing them spill out their thoughts. At the same time, however, the production sets up a deliberate tension, as the private is aired publicly and isolation is experienced in the middle of a crowd.

Nothing is full of such tensions – between theatricality and authenticity, between rehearsed performance and spontaneity, between alienation and community. It is the latter that is perhaps most significant, constituting the show’s quiet but insistent political intent. The play’s disconnected characters share so much with one another (and, I would suggest, with their young audience at NSDF), but not once are they able to meet eyes, let alone connect. They are, as our society would have them, atomised individuals, bumping against one another without making a dent. Despite the ease and frequency of the text’s jokes, it’s an unblinkingly bleak vision of contemporary Britain, both in form and content.

And yet … there is something innately optimistic about the way in which Nothing is staged. In its arrangement of the audience, its acknowledgement of the community of the theatre, and its emphasis on collaboration, it can’t help but gesture towards the human connection that its characters find so impossible. There are definite echoes of Simon Stephens, and particularly of Pornography, in Raczka’s writing; I am reminded, too, of Stephens’ insistence that theatre is an inherently optimistic art form, no matter how dark its subject matter.

There is also a certain tension in the show’s surroundings. The company describe the piece as “site-unspecific” – it can be staged just about anywhere, and has already been seen in dressing rooms, pubs and car parks – but each performance is absolutely specific to its site in a series of fascinating and unpredictable ways. Of course, I can only discuss those that are particular to the performance I experienced, at the very nerve centre of NSDF in the Spa Complex. I understand that this was the biggest audience that the piece has been performed to, and there is a sense of lost intimacy as a result. Whispered as confessions in a small space, these monologues would suddenly acquire a whole series of different meanings, not to mention a different relationship with their audience. Whereas in a long, cavernous space messily cluttered with people, the show has just the slightest strain of effort, distracting a little from the speeches themselves.

But what is lost in the main set up of this particular staging is brilliantly recouped in its finale. [Here follow the main spoilers] Wisely, the one fixed element of the show is reserved for its conclusion, always closing on the same monologue. In this performance, we are abruptly led outside for the final speech – cue much clattering of chairs and awkward laughter. Ungainly as this transition is, however, it allows for a stunning moment in the Spa Complex’s open-air courtyard, with the sea and the sky adding all the drama and tragedy one could wish for. Against this vast backdrop, the closing speech – beginning with the self-effacing words “nothing ever happens to me” – feels startlingly small in its sad, shrugging attitude to the world. It’s devastating precisely because of its smallness, its inadequacy, its isolation – and its painful familiarity.

Of course, Nothing has its  flaws. The one downside of such thrilling unpredictability is that it must be almost impossible to give the piece dramaturgical shape from performance to performance; its shape emerges in the moment, in response to the conditions in the room, and will inevitably be more effective on some occasions than others. The rules, like the show, need to be constantly remade. But in its malleability, its thoughtful self-awareness, its implicit politics and the natural flair of its writing, this incarnation of Nothing is a tantalising taste of what it – and the company behind it – might go on to become.