We Want You to Watch, National Theatre

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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.

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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

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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.

Dark Magic

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Originally written for Exeunt.

No jingling sleigh bells or yells of “he’s behind you” at Northern Stage this Christmas. Dark Woods, Deep Snow, the theatre’s main stage Yuletide show, is certainly festive, but perhaps not in ways that theatregoers have come to anticipate at this time of year. Think less Santa, more magic. “It’s not what an audience will expect coming into a Christmas show,” admits director Lorne Campbell, “but also it’s got all the things that an audience can and should expect coming into a Christmas show; they’re just a little bit in disguise.”

Dark Woods, Deep Snow is Campbell’s first main stage production at the helm at Northern Stage, testing the new artistic director’s commitment to staging work that is large scale, exciting and powerfully local. While his debut might be a family Christmas show, typically seen as a low risk staple of the yearly programme, for Campbell this is the perfect challenge to create a theatre that is at once “populist and sophisticated”.

“We’ve tried to do something really ambitious,” he tells me. “The production is massive, it’s non-naturalistic, it’s visually – I think – absolutely stunning.” For the show, Campbell has brought together a group of artists, including writer Chris Thorpe, designer Garance Marneur and choreographers and performers RashDash, whose “spirit of experimentation” he wanted to free from studio theatres and unleash on a bigger stage. The hope was to retain the mischief and ingenuity, but expand the scale.

This marriage of experiment and scale, tradition and reinvention, is immediately evident at the level of the show’s plot. Charged with creating a narrative that was rooted in this time of year without conforming slavishly to Christmas show conventions, Thorpe was immediately drawn to the idea of stories. He was intrigued by “why there’s this urge in us to get together at this time of year, when the nights are the darkest, and try and turn things around and tell each other stories”.

Captivated by the image of tales shared at the fireside, and drawing inspiration from the story gathering project undertaken by the Brothers Grimm, Thorpe dreamed up a group of characters who live at the edges of the human world, in the “infinitely large forests outside of the human reality, where the stories go after we’ve told them to each other”. Here, they collect the narrative refuse of human society, piecing together the once upon a times and happily ever afters.

“The idea is that there’s a group of characters who have been engaging with these stories for as long as humanity has been telling them,” Thorpe explains, “almost behind the scenes of our reality, and they have observed the way that we tell them, but they themselves aren’t necessarily human. I think that’s a really interesting perspective to have on it.”

As an audience joins this group of characters at the start of the show, human stories are under threat from an external force that wants to rob these narratives from our universe, setting up a classic scenario of conflict and peril. Campbell describes it as a “big, exciting, what’s-going-to-happen-next adventure”, with a “big heart of narrative underneath it”.

While driven by a strong central narrative, however, the show simultaneously operates on a number of levels. As Thorpe explains, his invention has allowed him to incorporate both the familiar and the surprising, as fragments of well known stories meet the strange world of the characters he has created. “And also, because you’re not just retelling old stories in a show like this, it allows you to bring a whole bunch of people into the theatre and ask the questions that theatre is really about,” he goes on. “It’s really focused on everyone coming to the theatre and having a brilliant time, but it’s nice that it also links into what the theatre is there for year round; this place where we can all come and we can all share an experience that isn’t replicable in any other medium and we can all ask questions.”

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These subtle layers equally apply to Marneur’s set design, which couples the recognisable, magical aesthetic of the forest with other unexpected, dazzling and occasionally dark elements. “Our styles are all quite dark,” Marneur says of the creative team. “They appear very beautiful at first, but once you dig a little bit deeper there’s always a second layer, a third layer that gets you to ask questions and provokes you. So the forest is the magical forest of a Christmas show, but it’s also diving into one’s subconscious. And of course that’s a beautiful place to be, but it’s also a very scary place to be. As a festive performance, one might not want to go into those dark places. So keeping the high vibe of the Christmas show with such heavy content and such existential questions being asked was my biggest challenge.”

This begs the question of what a Christmas show really needs. When I put this to Campbell, he pauses for a moment. “Joy, scale, chaos, irreverence,” he eventually answers. Thorpe also points to the spirit of Christmas theatre rather than its explicit themes or imagery, referring to a “feeling of coming together at this time of year to do something celebratory and exciting”. While insisting that he’s not trying to “de-Christmasify” the Christmas show, he adds that “it’s not necessarily about saying ‘hey kids, it’s Christmas’, because the entire world is saying ‘hey kids, it’s Christmas’ at this time of year”.

Getting away from the iconography of Christmas might not have been difficult for Thorpe and his fellow theatremakers, but creating a theatrical language that speaks to both old and young has proved to be more of a challenge. Thorpe, who is more accustomed to writing for adult audiences, is adamant that it is not about adjusting down to the children in the audience – “there isn’t a down, there isn’t a hierarchy”. It is instead about “simply and honestly just saying what you think” and finding common ground.

One way to do this is to recapture the thrill and imagination of childhood for all members of the audience, an aim that was essential to Marneur’s design. She describes her set, an otherworldly maze of towering white trees, as a “flexible playground” for the performers to explore. It is also a playground that can be transformed through the art of projection, allowing Marneur to “play with the audience’s perception of the forest” and conjure some of the magic of the fairytale – a form that translates across all ages, just as the show hopes to.

“It’s hopefully a very accessible family show,” Campbell stresses, “but simultaneously it’s a very sophisticated bit of theatre that’s taking its aspiration very seriously, while being irreverent and ridiculous and funny and fantastical and all of those things at once.” None of this, he adds, is specific to Christmas; as always, they are “just trying to make a really great, exciting bit of theatre”.

There is, however, a certain responsibility that the creative team acknowledge towards audiences who might only attend one show a year at Christmas. Realising that this is the first contact many children have with theatre, Thorpe emphasises that “you’ve got to make that count for them”. He and his collaborators also recognise the unique opportunity they have to attract and engage new audiences by demonstrating that theatre is something they can enjoy all year round. Convince them at Christmas, and they might keep coming back.

“It’s for life,” says Thorpe, “it’s not just for Christmas.”

The Ugly Sisters, St Stephen’s

RashDash’s rock-infused cabaret restyling of Cinderella really shouldn’t be as good as it is. Reimaginings of fairytales are hardly original; almost every maligned fictional villain has now had the story retold from their misunderstood perspective. Likewise, there is nothing particularly earth-shattering about RashDash’s scruffy-punk aesthetic or the music of accompanying band Not Now Bernard. So the gloriously anarchic product, transcending its angsty teenage premise, is fairly remarkable testament to the charisma and chemistry of this accomplished performing duo.

The narrative twist that is executed by RashDash throws the Cinderella story into the midst of rabid, fame-obsessed contemporary culture and the distorted world of “reality” television. Dragged up in a world of burned out cars and used needles, twins Emerald and Pearl undergo their own rags to riches transformation when their fortunes are changed by their mother’s marriage to a wealthy single father, but this is no fairytale. As they find themselves increasingly overshadowed by seemingly perfect Arabella – dubbed “Cindy-rella” by Emerald – the girls decide to copy their stepsister by entering You Shall Go to the Ball, a nauseatingly plausible television contest to win the affection of a prince.

But it’s not the gruesome dissection of reality TV that really slices to the bone – we already know that The X Factor is an amplified freak show, the grim voyeurism of the eighteenth-century asylum made-over by the worst excesses of Saturday night entertainment. Instead it is RashDash’s cuttingly perceptive indictment of the roles that women are straitjacketed into by this media-obsessed society that remains most firmly embedded in the mind. In an attempt to match the appeal of materialist, manicured Arabella (ironically represented by a male band member wearing a tiara), the two sisters wriggle into boob tubes and totter on platform heels, pouting with hands on hips in a pose that exemplifies the anxiously conformist vanity of the Facebook profile picture – hilarious but grotesque.

There is also something fairly potent in RashDash’s approach about the nature of narrative and the power held by the storytellers. With the media under a particularly scorching spotlight at present, their turning of the tables is yet another instance of how our perceptions are determined by those clutching the pen – the implication being, of course, that it has always been this way. While such distortions now lie in the hands of profit-conscious TV producers and tabloid editors, the continued currency of fairytales illustrates that there has always been a tendency to paint heroes and villains.

Such musings, however, arose mostly after the event. The show itself carries its audience along on a momentum of charismatic, impressively physical performances and fierce vocals; a sharp and irresistible adrenalin rush of playful, cabaret-style narrative riffing that races past at a furious gallop. The intensely performative confessional of the cabaret show is an appropriate vehicle for telling Emerald and Pearl’s side of the story, but this genre is spliced with other elements. The use of foot pedal looping to create a layered musical narrative, for example, offers one of the performance’s stand-out moments of inventiveness, suggesting the noise of the various voices surrounding this story. RashDash also throw in some cheeky chunks of meta, making knowing nods to the theatrical conventions they are working within and teasing us with the prospect of intimidating audience interaction that often accompanies such performances, without ever fully committing to this strand.

Ultimately, it is perplexingly hard to articulate just why this works. There may not be a great degree of originality or distinctiveness to RashDash’s approach, but in execution it is unfailingly enjoyable. Like the fairytale it takes as its basis, it may be familiar and not all that exciting on paper, but it translates into an undeniably engaging night of entertainment.