Comeback Special, Shoreditch Town Hall

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Originally written for Exeunt.

1968, Burbank, California. Six years after his last number one single, Elvis Presley records an intimate television concert surrounded on all sides by screaming fans.

2016, Shoreditch Town Hall, London. Greg Wohead re-enacts the television broadcast, now known as the 1968 Comeback Special. Well, sort of re-enacts it.

In The Ted Bundy Project, Wohead dissected our morbid fascination with violent figures and his own disturbing attraction to serial killer Ted Bundy’s confession tapes.Comeback Specialonce again unravels the fabric of fascination, though this time it’s the famous rather than the infamous under the microscope. What makes an icon, a King? And what might happen if we try, briefly, to bring him back?

Wohead arranges the audience on four sides of a raised square stage in Shoreditch Town Hall, mirroring the layout of the Burbank studio. Chairs and a microphone stand are placed just so. It’s a perfect reconstruction in some ways, deliberately imperfect in others. Drained of the bright, synthetic colour of 1960s fashion, Wohead’s version is a shadow or skeleton of the original event. Recreated in monochrome, this is a black-and-white negative of the 1968 Comeback Special. An echo. A ghost.

The whole event is, supposedly, about authenticity. “I want you to see who I really am,” says Wohead/Elvis in a seductive drawl. That was the whole point of the television broadcast: to offer fans a glimpse of Elvis the man as well as Elvis the star. The King and his musicians jam together, while Elvis talks to the audience between songs. Yet at the same time, as Wohead tells us, this was all carefully constructed: the television show was pre-recorded and released in multiple different versions. How is it even possible to recreate something that exists under myriad guises?

Wohead builds his re-enactment slowly, in careful layers. At first, the dynamism of the gig is rendered oddly static. Everything is told, not shown: Elvis’s appearance, the layout of the television studio, the position of the cameras, the clothes worn by the fans. Wohead talks us through every last detail of the recording, the meticulous description juxtaposed with a complete refusal to imitate. “You can see that my hair is black, obviously,” says Wohead, looking at us through his mousy mop. Even the lyrics are spoken, deadpan, rather than sung.

And then gradually, bit by bit, Wohead takes on aspects of Elvis’s physicality. A curling lip. A thrusting hip. Then, later, that distinctive voice. That unmistakeable “uh-huh”. Wohead’s is a fragmented impersonation, isolating individual elements of Elvis’s performance. He works like a forensic scientist, as if in search of some elusive essence. Is it in the voice? The recognisable quiff of hair? Those hips?

But meaning resides as much with the audience – the audience then, in the television studio, and the audience now, in Shoreditch Town Hall – as it does with either Elvis or Wohead. Attention is drawn to the ways in which individual spectators cherish moments of eye contact or precious souvenirs: a sweat-soaked handkerchief or a piece of lint plucked from Elvis’s cheek. A good chunk of the show is dedicated to recreating one small moment of interaction between Elvis, the audience and one of his band members, Wohead building the encounter piece by tiny piece with the help of the audience.

The choice of re-enactment also feels crucial. The 1968 Comeback Special is the scene of Elvis’s career resuscitation. But it is also, perhaps, the moment everyone realised for the first time that he was human and fragile and as vulnerable to time and age as the rest of us mere mortals. This is not Elvis as he was in the years before his death – fat, drug-addled, washed-up – but he is no longer quite the untouchable young man he once was. He is, as Wohead puts it, “caught between”.

Scrolling through YouTube the day after watching the show, there’s something hypnotic about the videos of the 1968 Comeback Special. It’s the way the whole event flirts with failure: Elvis interrupts his own songs, jokes about forgetting the lyrics, laughs in a way that is at once exposed and in control. This is not Elvis at the height of his powers. And the footage of the television show itself, when it finally appears in Wohead’s performance, seems flimsy and thin, projected onto translucent cloths hanging behind the four sides of the stage. The King is little more than a flickering image, fleeting and insubstantial.

Photo: Manuel Vason.

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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.

The Ted Bundy Project, Ovalhouse

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Originally written for Exeunt.

The title of Greg Wohead’s show would have us believe that it is about Ted Bundy, the notorious American serial killer. And, in a way, it is. Wohead relates details from Bundy’s life, reproduces his confession tapes, teases out tiny details around the murder and decapitation of one of his victims.

But really, The Ted Bundy Project is about Wohead and about us.

At first glance, it might seem like an odd pairing of performer and subject matter. Wohead is so warm, so genial, so smiling. But then so, apparently, was Bundy. Wohead tells us that he was known for being a nice guy – or appearing to be, at least. He lured in his victims by quickly building up trust. He was handsome and friendly. He seemed … normal.

Wohead too seems normal, friendly, trustworthy. He opens the show by welcoming and thanking his audience, telling us a bit about Bundy, diffusing the tension with some nervous laughter. We hear a few details about Bundy’s life: his childhood, his education, all the familiar details of an unremarkable existence. And then Wohead comes sharply to the point.

“I guess you want to hear the juicy stuff.”

This desire for “the juicy stuff” is the real focus of Wohead’s show. He repeats and interlaces a number of different narrative strands: the murder of one of Bundy’s victims, the killer’s confession tapes, Wohead’s experience of listening to those tapes, a seemingly innocent memory of summer camp. By weaving together facts about Bundy and personal recollections, Wohead increasingly blurs the line between the two, gradually exposing the submerged violence in him and in his audience.

The whole thing is a dare to our dark side, a teasing appeal to the Ted Bundy in all of us. How much do you want to see? How much gore are you willing to stomach? How many of the gruesome details is your mind luridly colouring in? Like the complicity of imagination created among the audience in The Author, Wohead cannily leaves it up to us to manufacture the nastiest of the images he describes. On stage, there is not so much as one drop of blood, but our minds are bathed in horror.

Two devices are particularly striking. One is the density of fact and speculation surrounding the crime scene that Wohead constructs around one particular murder, blandly repeating the phrases “what we know is …” and “what we don’t know is …” It’s the precise, careful language of police investigations, but also the language of curiosity, of meticulously combing through details. It leaves us disgusted and yet fascinated, morbidly eager to hear more.

The other is a “reaction video”, a genre familiar to anyone who has spent a bit of time on YouTube. The video being reacted to is provocatively titled “one lunatic, one icepick”. You can probably guess the rest. But what Wohead smartly achieves by repeatedly projecting this reaction video – which shows a group of young men recoiling, covering their eyes and mouths, and in one case vomiting – is to hold a mirror up to his audience. The attraction to images of extreme violence is one we can all recognise, whether it comes from bestgore.com (visit at your peril – though I guess that’s the point) or movies like Saw and The Human Centipede.

In the end, it’s up to us to turn away or to keep on looking.

Photo: Alex Brenner.