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NOTE (Added 18/09/09): Maggie, who was in the show, wrote a blog about reading this review. In the interest of free discussion, here’s the link: http://makingmek.wordpress.com/2009/09/17/short-story/

 

It’s been interesting for me writing this review, because it’s a negative one and I know two people who were in the play (hi Mattie and Maggie!). I think the point in writing these is to say what I think but not get caught up thinking that it matters.

Gitmo was another play in Hatched. As the name suggests it was about the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and issues surrounding that. It was run of the mill protest stuff, what I expected from a bunch of young people making a political statement. And for some reason that frustrated me. Maybe I want too much, but the subject is so momentous,  complex and human and Gitmo’s treatment of it was one-dimensional, unimaginative and didn’t touch me emotionally. It  manhandled its material, it neither let the material speak for itself nor brought new light and perspective to it. The idea of documentary theatre, as this show classified itself, is interesting. It prompts the question, why not just write an essay or make a documentary? I’m sure there’s a good answer, but if a production’s answer is to use the theatrical form to ‘grease the message’, it makes me feel I’m being treated like an infant. And I felt that at a number of points in Gitmo.  The intensely earnest performances ran over the cliches again and again. It became one-sided to the point of caricature. The way they portrayed U.S. senators was riduculous, merely regurgitating their negative cliche. And one particular speech made me cringe. It was a speech of a detainee, talking about how he had not done anything wrong. What he said, talking about sticking to his religion etc., suggested he meant that any actions against America were not wrong because they were justified by the Qur’an (which by the way they are, see 8:39). The show, however, presented it as the steadfast stand of an innocent. People complain about the political right wing being absolutist, but it’s opponents, including those many who oppose politicians on proncipal, are just as guilty. Our society is uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, left and right equally. To quote John Patrick Shanley in the introduction to his Pulitzer winning  Doubt:

“We are living in a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of conflict and of verdict. Discussion has given way to debate. Communication has become a contest of wills. Public talking has become obnoxious and insincere. Why? Maybe because deep down under the chatter we have come to a place where we know that we don’t know…anything. But nobody’s willing to say that.”

 Overall it lacked any agknowledgement that terrorists do actually exist and what they do ain’t good. I’m not suggesting the show had to support everything that happened at Guantanamo Bay, but if they’re aiming to educate the audience, at least show the whole picture, even if its only to say, ‘even this doesn’t justify torture’. Now of course not every show has to explore all the different perspectives or elements of a subject, not every show is ‘educational’, maybe the focus is just on the suffering of the detainees, regardless of context. But the show didn’t convey the power of this either. When an actor is speaking with such self-righteous earnest, any emotional power the content of her words may have is drowned out. They described shocking humiliating things, but rather than letting them speak for themselves, they REALLY IMPRESSED UPON US THAT THIS IS BAD. And that drove me away. 

 

John Patrick Shanley continues,

“What is Doubt? Each of us is like a planet. There is a crust, which seems eternal. We are confident about who we are. If you ask we can readily describe our current state. I know my answers to so many questions, as do you. What was your father like? Do you belive in God? Who is your best friend? What do you want? Your answers are your current topography. Seemingly permanent, but deceptively so. Because under that face of easy response, there is another you. And this wordless Being moves just as the instant moves; it presses upward without explanation, fluid and wordless, until the resisting consciousness has no choice but to give way.”

What I’d hope for in a show that is hoping to convey something like the suffering of the detainees is for at some point the stage, the acting, the theatre of it to dissapear. To leave shockingly raw and undisguised the souls of the actors and the audience, and the reality of the material. For that planet’s crust to be fractured, allowing the fluid interior to show through. When these interiors, of actor, audience members and subject, touch, then the shiver of understanding runs through your gut. Then torture is made more real than watching a trillion news reports could make it. Gitmo remodelled my crust slightly, but was too crusty itself to break through it. Why is it that the word crusty is so funny? 

There were a few moments in Gitmo when the crust began to wobble slightly, but the play itself imposed itself too strongly, holding it steady. Peter Brook says in The Empty Space.

“During a talk to a group at a university I…asked for a volunteer. A man came forward, and I gave him a sheet of paper on which was typed a speech from  Peter Weiss’ play about Auschwitz, The Investigation. The section was a description of bodies inside a gas chamber. As the volunteer took the paper and read it over to himself…he was too struck and too appalled by what he was reading to react with the sheepish grins that are…customary….he began to read aloud. The very first words were loaded with their own ghastly sense and the reader’s response to them. Immediately the audience understood. It became one with him, with the speech- the lecture room and the volunteer who had come on to the platform vanished from sight- the naked evidence from Auschwitz was so powerful that it took over completely…his reading, technically speaking, was perfect…because he had no attention to spare for self-consciousness, for wondering whether he was using the right intonation. He knew the audience wanted to hear, and he wanted to let them hear: the images found their own level and guided his voice unconsciously to the appropriate volume and pitch.

After this I asked for another volunteer, and gave him the speech from Henry V  which lists the names and numbers of the French and English dead. When he read this aloud, all the faults of the amateur actor appeared….he put on a false voice that strived to be noble and historical, mouthed his words roundly, made awkward stresses, got tongue-tied, stiff and confused, and the audience listened innatentive and restless…I proposed an experiment…the audience was to endeavour to…try to find a way of believing that these names were once individuals, as vividly as if the butchery had occured in living memory. The amateur began to read again, the half silence became a dense one…it turned all his attention away from himself, onto the subject matter he was speaking…his inflections were simple, his rhythms true.”

Gitmo was the opposite of this situation. The plain evidence, so near in time, nearer than Auschwitz was to that audience, was treated like the volunteer originally treated Henry V. The actors were ‘actorly’, and impressed the importance and gravitas of their words artificially.  They dominated their words, rather than letting what theysaid be something beyond them. They shoved it into us, using it to cow us with its power, rather than being cowed with us at this evidence which humbles theatrical convention.

The 'detainees'.

The 'detainees'. (photo by Alice Boyle)

 It’s a strange phenomena isn’t it? The more a performance tries to draw us in, the more we superficially go along with them, the more the rawer parts of our being are actually alienated. And when we are alienated in the Brechtian sense, in my experience  we actually come together more. Brecht’s pretty relevant here as his theatre had a social aim and so did Gitmo. Brechtian alienation treats us as adults, giving us the space to make up our own minds, to find our own way. In some way it creates space…a space into which our full being can spread. In contrast, watching Gitmo I felt like it was more about the actors, I didn’t feel trusted. People already hold certain views, have certain images around an issue like this, and I’d hope from a play to have the range of my thinking and feeling pushed outward, and to then be able to find my own place in that.

 Gitmo wasn’t objective enough to be like a documentary, and wasn’t human enough to touch me emotionally. Knowing the people who see things at St. Martins, it preached to the choir. Rather than putting a grain of sand into the oyster, it gave more oyster flesh. And it is only around a grain of sound that a pearl can grow.

I’ve realised this review/pondering colludes in the very thing it comdemns. That confrontational culture. In another part of that Preface Mr. Shanley says (italics are mine): “It’s evident in political talk shows, in entertainment coverage, in artistic critisism of every kind, in religious discussion.” Well I guess we’re in this together. I’ll try to get away from that in future. Break through the crust, which in my case here is made largely of such things as references to Brecht and Beckett. Why don’t we all give it a go, and try to bring more Doubt into our minds, when we and our world are used to spitting on it?

N.B: Where the word ‘doubt’ is used here, it is meant in the sense of “The condition of being unsettled or unresolved: an outcome still in doubt.” (http://www.thefreedictionary.com/doubt)

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Baby Doll (Leone Darling) telling off her daughter (Steph Calthorpe)

Baby Doll (Leone White) tells off her daughter Diddums (Steph Calthorpe). (Photo by Louris van der Geer)

I was rather excited to see Honey-Bun and Baby Doll because Louris’  last show is one of my two favourite plays ever. I didn’t like this anywhere near as much, but it was still a great piece of theatre, and I’m still in awe of her skill. As I was watching the line kept running through my head- “Louris is Beckett, Louris is Beckett”. The similarity was striking. They shared, to point out one similarity, the comedy that is also deeper and unsettling. In Beckett’s work people often miss the comedy because his plays are considered so ‘meaningful’ and have such a place in the theatrical canon, but in Honey-Bun and Baby Doll the situation was reversed. People missed the more serious or unsettling elements because it was just a little piece by an amateur in a youth theatre festival.  The overall…style I suppose is also the same. The play as a situation which represents something wider, but also exists in it’s own right. Beckett created images, situations, events, which are not of our world or life, but neither are they above it, blatantly ‘poetic’ and ringing with the echoes of ossified historic grandeur. The woman stuck in a mound, talking away with a smile on her face. Honey-Bun and Baby Doll had the girl picking through a pile of electronics, pulling them apart, while her parents canoodle in the background.  Both creations are intensely theatrical. But what does that really mean? They have a direct presence in the theatre, are of the theatre, and the form cannot be separated from the content. Where Louris, or should I say Ms. van der Geer, and Beckett differ is in the degree of their removal from literal reality. Louris’ piece is much closer to life, in an external sense, than Beckett’s work is.  Louris had a house, a couch, a couple, whereas Beckett’s more ‘parents in dustbins’. One is something we would come across, in a literal sense,  in our everyday lives. The other is not. This is not to say that Beckett’s work is less relevant, or less connected with reality, in fact it could easily mean the opposite. Something does not need to be represented in a literal way to be close to reality. This same difference is present in the dialogue and the structure: Louris’ relied a lot more on the image we all have of reality. Beckett’s plays break free of any ties to naturalism or ‘realism’ and live solely in the theatrical space, unfettered. So perhaps we could say Honey-Bun and Baby Doll had the spirit of Beckett clothed in the garb of naturalism. With all this though, the difference is a matter of degree rather than opposing natures. The dials do not have to turn very far to get from Honey-Bun and Baby Doll to Happy Days. Those names themselves share something, a kind of gentle irony. Both plays and both names pick a little fragment out of life and hold it up to the light. It may look stange to us ripped from its surroundings and viewed from a different angle, in such bright light, but in the the end the light shining through it does not distort it, but illuminates it in a way we’ve never seen before.

The actors all rose to their task perfectly, there was never a sense that the script was good but the actors were letting it down. The two blended completely, making the play a single living object. It was always very much a play, it never drifted into seeming like a real interaction happening spontaneously, but it didn’t need to. Interestingly enough, it’s artificial nature didn’t make it seem dead or like things were happening simply because the script said they should. Spontenaity and artifice gelled perfectly. It was interesting seeing Leone Darling, who played Baby Doll, in another Hatched production. Her performance was nowhere near the quality it reached in Honey-Bun and Baby Doll, where her self and the role seemed to blend. In the other production, Welcome to the Show, she was merely going through the motions. I would put this down to the directors. It’s not merely a matter of a director ‘drawing out’ a great performance from an actor either, One of a theatre director’s main roles, whether conscious or not, is creating a certain atmosphere in rehearsals. If the atmosphere is right an actor is free to give a great performace. It’s more a matter of the director not stuffing the actor up, which is a much harder task than trying to make the actor better by some sort of addition.

I didn’t enjoy Honey-Bun and Baby Doll as much as I enjoyed Louris’ Hatched show last year, They’re All in Their Little Boxes. A few people I spoke to said the same thing, including Louris herself. I was trying to work out why and I think one reason is that Honey-Bun and Baby Doll was a lot more static. One of the basic parts of playwrighting is creating a routine and then breaking it. Macbeth is having a feast, then that routine is broken by the appearance of Baquo’s ghost. In They’re All in their Little Boxes, routines were being broken constantly, left, right and center. There was never a moment for you, as an audience member, to become complacent. Boredom was out of the question. I described it to Louris as a fast paced tennis match between me and the play. We were both being pushed to the limit of our abilities, and throwing out amazing shots, each of which our opponent had to use all their skill to return, but still their return shot was a terrific shot as well. Honey-Bun and Baby Dollwas more homogenous. On a smaller scale routines were created and broken perhaps just as fast, but they were all encompassed in one slow-moving river. The shots were still expertly executed, but followed a particular well-defined gameplan. If anything Honey-Bun and Baby Dollwas a much tamer play. It bowed further to the gods of the well-made play, though the one doing the bowing was still a genius. I personally would say fuck the gods, let your soul live unfettered by duty. After all, if we can’t do that in the theatre, where can we?

Unfortunately Hatched has already closed, as has Liminal Theatre’s Oedipus, which I saw yesterday (I’ll post the review tomorrow). I went to the closing nights of both. That’s a habit I should get out of if I’m going to write this blog and expect people to read it. “Oh yeah this show was great, the most life changing experience I’ve ever had. But you can’t go. It’s closed. Done. Yeah. Yeah I know I just posted this. I posted it after  it closed. Yeah. I know. Too bad. Sorry.”

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Honey-Bun and Baby Doll. Written, directed & designed by Louris van der Geer. Honey-Bun– David Peake; Baby Doll– Leone White; Diddums– Steph Calthorpe. Part of Hatched ’09, St. Martins Youth Arts Centre. Closed.

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