Saturday, 24 December 2011

"Things look pretty bad right now".

"Things look pretty bad right now". - Maj. Gen. Briggs, at Shiloh

A few things today.

My first week at the PR company has finished - it was informative, fun, exhausting and a great experience. I love being in the centre of London. On my lunch breaks I would walk around the streets by the Novello Theatre and remember those days spent queuing for student tickets for Spring Awakening, and all the people I met outside the stage door. Or the cocktails I had at the Waldorf with my dad. Or the time I bought that CD from a string quartet which were playing at Covent Garden, and the cellist kissed my hand. Or every time I've brought a guy to browse with me at Coco de Mer - partly because I actually wanted to go in, partly to see the expression on their face when they're met with a leather sex chair, complete with stirrups, or peacock-patterned silk and leather wrist cuffs. The latter I stroked lovingly the other day when accompanied by a male friend, saying, 'I'm not into this kind of stuff, but if I was, I would buy this. Isn't it beautiful?' The shock on his face was a reply amusing enough.

Listen to this:

I went to see Audience at Soho Theatre on Tuesday with a friend. I wanted to see this because I'd read articles and reviews about it, and my interest was piqued. Its run in Edinburgh this year sparked off an incredible amount of debate, from scathing reviews to complaints from audience members. What I am about to write will contain spoilers. Problem is, I'd read spoilers already so I knew what to expect, I knew what the crux of the piece was.

It goes like this.

You leave bags and coats outside the theatre, if you want to. Don't. They are later brought on stage and rifled through by the cast. I was expecting a lot of interaction, I was expecting boundaries to be crossed, so I wouldn't have minded should my bag have been picked. Actually, I kind of secretly wanted it to, because I had packed really nice knickers that day. But I could imagine that this invasion of privacy was one thing that caused raised hackles.

My friend and I sat quite near the back. The start of the play begins with an actress centre stage. She starts speaking, normally, and gradually we come to silence. It's a joke, it's deliberately patronising: her speech is a 'How-to' for theatres.
"If you want to cough, do it quietly", she advises, "If you have a coughing fit - go outside. Find a suitable time to come back in. But don't stay outside, because the people who you disturbed by clambering over them on your way out will have you in the back of their mind, wondering when you're going to come back. And if you don't come back, it suggests you don't like the play." She explains the mechanics of a curtain call, of an encore, how rustling sweet wrappers are a no-no, how it's okay to laugh, how it's not okay to respond to actors. "It's called a 'rhetorical question'", she explains, over-carefully. This is, of course, the point: everyone in this theatre are theatre-goers. We are seasoned, professional audience members, we know the rules, we know the ins-and-outs. We haven't won theatre vouchers from a random prize draw in The Sun, we have booked this specifically. Perhaps we heard about the hype. Perhaps we're drama students, interested in pretentious, experimental theatre. Perhaps we simply like the season's picks at the Soho Theatre, we trust the programmers, always come here. But we are professional audience members, in the same way that they are professional actors. So this speech is a nod to us, and to the theatre situation as a whole. There are certain rules that you go by, and Ontroerend Goed plan to flaunt those rules.

The woman sits down. You see a guy centre stage with a video camera trained on the audience. Accompanied by throbbing, dramatic music, you watch as the lights slowly dim and the picture on the huge screen behind the cameraman gradually becomes clearer: it's you. You watch as - always slowly, so slowly - an audience member's wrist is zoomed in on, left behind, someone's crossed legs, an empty space in the seating, someone's hair, their bag, moved over, left behind, and the camera pans over an anonymous face; you want to know where that audience member is, see their reaction, but you can't tear your eyes away from the screen; you can't tell in what direction the camera is going, you look at the people sitting near you, memorise the colour of their clothes - 'When I see a blue coat I'll know the camera is coming near me' - but the camera never actually hits you fully. And always the film-music in the background.
Then a voiceover. We are told statistics. 'There are nine of you who came alone tonight. The predominant colour that everyone is wearing is black. Fifteen of you are in a couple. There are ten homosexuals in the audience. There are seven fat people in the audience - you know who you are'. And so it continues.

The tone changes, becomes more lighthearted. Stage-lights: the bags and coats are brought on stage and it becomes a mock-fashion show, always with the camera in the background. 'The person wearing the BRIGHTEST clothes in the audience is THIS lady!' The X Factor-esque announcer says with a flourish, as the camera pans to a woman in the fourth row wearing a bright blue Christmas jumper with a reindeer on the front. She grins embarrassedly, but the camera isn't on her for long. The pace quickens, the music reaches a climax, we are told, 'You are RARE, you are UNIQUE, you are one-of-a-kind. There is no one else like you in this world.' We are buoyed up, ecstatic, triumphant - the audience is comprised of individuals, we are not a crowd, we are separate people, God, doesn't it feel good?

And at some point we get to the crux of the show, all too quickly. After professing that he's 'the warm-up act', and 'teaches' us how to applaud after a show, one of the performers starts insulting a girl in the audience on the basis that she wasn't going along with the applause that he was teaching us to do. Convenient. He chose a young brunette who was in the front row and was, conveniently, very very pretty. (And all the while, you're thinking: Is she a plant?) He calls her a 'fuckface', a 'bitch', tells her how ugly she is - which is why he's chosen someone so attractive: to rouse indignant responses from the rest of the audience.
He spits in her face, "And you're just thinking, yeah yeah, he's picking on me because he needs someone to focus on in the audience. Well you're wrong, fuckface. I'm picking on you because you think you're impervious to this theatrical thing, you think you're so much better than the rest of us because you couldn't be bothered. I'm not picking on you because you're weak - and God knows you are - I'm picking on you because you're worthless", etc. He's making reference to the state of all of us being in a theatre! God, that's experimental! God, that's edgy!

But the natives are getting restless. Quite early on into this barrage, one audience members says, loudly, 'ENOUGH'. People turn around to look at who said it - is it a plant? Bright red, she says it again. And continues to say it. But the actor is in the midst of a speech. He's prepared this, and it seems to me like the company aren't prepared to be interrupted so early. They're prepared for an audience that sits in stunned silence until it reaches an unimaginably controversial stage where, finally, despite our restrained, polite British natures, someone manages to intervene.

Well, let me tell you, our British audiences ain't so quiet.

And that surprised me too. I wasn't shocked like everyone else because like I said, I'd read the spoilers and I knew this was the crux to the piece. Ever the interested drama student, I leaned forward with my chin resting on my hands, and watched it all unfold. The only thing which seemed to me to be effective was that you didn't know who was an actor and who wasn't. There were some who were obviously part of the company - but you didn't know if the person in the audience was that girl's friend or a stranger who honestly felt that she had to stick up for someone she didn't know. In which case, we're meant to feel all warm and fuzzy inside - the compassion of the human spirit! Despite the constraints of being in a theatre! But overall, there was something very artificial about the whole thing.

I read an article about the show, which mentions that they began showing it to Belgian audiences. Belgian audiences, for some reason, aren't as vocal as British. They knew they were meant to go along with it, thought, 'Okay, well, I can see you're trying to shock me, let's see what else happens'. But British audiences think, 'Nope, this isn't right. I'm going to say something'. I'm oddly kind of impressed that our theatre audiences do that. I can imagine that this play wouldn't work at all in America, because American audiences always have something to say. I'm surprised that British audiences are so vocal.

But there's more. Ignoring one audience member's complaint, the actor continues to the end of his speech (artificial) and says, 'Okay, I'll stop harassing her. If she spreads her legs'. This should be met with a gasp, a silence - he couldn't possibly do that, could he? How obscene! How controversial! Instead, this diehard theatre audience thought, Yeah yeah, think that impresses us? Nah.
Immediately, a woman in the front row said loudly, 'Oh, what the hell, don't ask her to do it. I'll do it - here you go!' and lifted her legs so those of us at the back saw her Ugg-booted feet kick the air wildly. That brought a laugh out of the rest of us, dissipating the shocked mood. I don't think the company was prepared for that. They've given us something shocking, and we've said, Yeah? So what? And they don't have a response, in turn, to us. But they continued. The actor gave money to a guy in the front row to start the chant, 'Spread-your-legs. Spread-your-legs'. The first guy refused, but the guy next to him took it and started the chant. Someone else in the audience called, 'For shame!'
Meanwhile, the girl is sitting there, legs tightly crossed - which we can all see, as the camera is trained on her crotch - in the middle of all of this. The guy chanting tries to pass the money along the row to her - the actor intervenes and gives it back to him. At the back, we can't quite see everything happening. It all seems a little bit absurd. Ontroerend Goed are trying so hard to demonstrate the point that we're all able to be manipulated, we're all under this theatrical contract as soon as we enter the theatre, to go along with the company's wishes, but we're not. We disproving, in real time, everything that the company is trying to state as irrevocable truth. We telling them to fuck off when they ask a young girl to spread her legs. We're showing them that yeah, we actually are an audience of individuals (in fairness, this surprised me too), and their claim about crowd-psychology just doesn't work. It all felt a bit flat.

How does the story end? Well, the girl didn't spread her legs. I'm still not sure whether she was a plant or not. The audience seemed to be distinctly unimpressed. After that climax, they started a section where they tried to get us to go along with them. The music became upbeat, there were minor fireworks, the company members started dancing, party poppers, party cannons, funky lights, club anthems chosen to get us dancing such as Beyonce's 'Single Ladies' - always one to get the women on their feet - but only a few of us really responded. Perhaps if they had done this earlier, when we were feeling more cheerful, we would all be dancing. I didn't dance, although it's the sort of thing I would do. It wasn't due to embarrassment in front of all of these strangers, but it was due to the fact that that was what they wanted me to do, and so, out of a kind of perversity, I chose free choice! I chose not to dance, just to go against the point the company was trying to make. And are they surprised that audiences in general are choosing to do as I did? Don't they see that people love to think that they're going against the grain, and against rules? Or maybe what I did was what they expected, and I ended up playing along by sticking my bum firmly to the seat. (Although perhaps I couldn't help a cheeky shoulder waggle every now and then).

It's hard to know the point of this. The point isn't to shock, because I could easily have been more shocked. 'Fuckface' is pretty pathetic. Try 'cunt', and the whole British audience would have been on their feet shouting. That word still has some shock-factor in our desensitised society.
Maybe the point was to show how we're all part of a crowd, and how it's human nature to go along with what everyone else does? Awkward. 'Cos we just didn't. There were a few who joined in; most didn't, and sat vaguely bored or just dismissive in their seats. Was the point to draw attention to how we're mostly white, middle-class, male and regular theatregoers? To be honest, we knew that anyway. Don't try and elicit middle-class guilt from us: we're fully conscious of it, and it's not particularly new or clever to do so.

It was a short show, only an hour long. I'm not surprised it worked so well in Edinburgh. The Fringe Festival is comprised of theatre-goers, for whom this show was created, and drama students. No wonder Ontroerend Goed is the darling of the theatre intelligentsia - the people who love to see thought-provoking theatre and then discuss it in great detail over an espresso or a large glass of Merlot at a nearby independent cafe. It's perfect for that. But it doesn't make the transfer to London so well: something isn't quite right.
So I wasn't shocked by this play. It was thought-provoking, however - I and my friend went and got margaritas and smoked at a nearby independent bar in Soho. But I think we all know why that is - it's the sort of thing we do. Plus - pretentiously - I'd like to write an essay on it as part of my modern and contemporary theatre module.

Having said all of this, I think I'll go and see it again.


If you do nothing else today (but you probably will, it being Christmas Eve), please check out Winston Chmielinski. Beautiful paintings.

Have you heard of the Humans of New York project? Go and have a look: Portraits of the city's inhabitants are organised into locale. There are also brief interviews, these nameless photographs are given stories as well. It's an impressive project in terms of scale, but also fascinating seeing the colourful and wildly contrasting lives of people who live in New York.

 Marguerite Kelsey, by Meredith Frampton, 1928.

 Girl on a Divan, Berthe Morisot, about 1885.

After the Bath, woman drying herself, by Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas, about 1890-95.

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