I was recently witness to Headlong Theatre’s production of 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre. After about 84 minutes (of the intended 101) I walked out.
The only other time I’ve ever done that was in Edinburgh once, when the amateur bleating of failed Rada students set to a backdrop of improvised whale music proved too much. 1984 wasn’t amateur in any sense, but it was doubleplusterrifying.
In a rare moment of life being scared shitless by art, my pulse quickened, my breathing shallowed, and my brain refused to comprehend the brutal scene before me. In a remarkable act of staging, the previous, rather comforting wood-panelled set (akin to an aristocratic country house library) transmogrified into a stark, bone-white nothingness, leaving nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from the horrifying vision of Winston losing his fingers, then his teeth, then –
And I couldn’t take any more.
Physically shaken, and abandoning my companion, I stumbled clumsily down to the theatre bar to consider how a mere play had left my legs less stable than a wonky table.
It wasn’t just the depiction of torture. Or the convincing performances (Winston, played by Sam Crane, in particular). It was an assault on the senses. The unrelenting flicker of strobe lighting. The sudden plunges into complete darkness. The eerily electrical soundscape. Like a milder, shorter (but no less intense) version of some forms of sensory torture. If a play could be charged with Attempting To Cause Psychological Harm, 1984 would be convicted, and locked up.
What is the role of theatre? To entertain? To pacify? To give us fresh insight into our lives? To challenge society? Maybe all of these. There’s no doubting the appalling relevance of Orwell’s dystopian vision to today. But I think 1984 went too far. It took theatre into a deeply disturbing space. Shock-tactics modern audiences are supposedly immune to (what with our appetite for Netflix bloodfests and graphic videogames) have the potential to grab headlines, sure. But what is the lasting impact on the more sensitive theatregoer? The one (and maybe it is only one) in the audience who listens intently to every syllable, every intonation. The one who can sit through two hours of Beckett without breaking focus. The one who, one day, might become a playwright themselves.
Theatre, in its live, real, raw, un-genetically modifiable state has immeasurable power (and we all know what comes with great power). It doesn’t need to compete with vampire sagas over gore-porn. It doesn’t need to pander to smartphone-induced attention deficit by crafting overbearingly immersive experiences. And it doesn’t need to make audiences feel so uncomfortable that they trickle out, night after night, affected, disturbed, and unable to make sense of why.
But maybe that was the point.
Marilyn Monroe has the same initials as me. So I thought I’d see what else we have in common.
It’s always nice watching successful people on stage. You get to sit back, relax and wallow in their glory as if it were your own, laugh knowingly at anecdotes and congratulate yourself on being impressive enough to be in such a select audience.
But last night’s WACL gathering of suitably impressive women (more MBEs and CBEs in one place than anyone can cope with – I can barely manage my ABC) was actually more about us than about them. Through life stories intertwined with tips on where to find inspiration and how to follow your passion, we were asked to consider an uncomfortable question: are we doing what we love?
Merry Baskin, chair, kicked things off by asking us to take a deep breath, push our shoulders back and stick our, er, assets out, doing nothing to assuage the male fantasy of the sort of thing that goes on at these women-only events. I believe there was a point to this exercise, but I’ve forgotten it.
Camilla Batmanghelidjh, CBE, the vibrant founder of Kids Company, campaigned for the crucible of LOVE and EFFECTIVENESS as the ultimate recipe for success. Audiences, when presented with someone who has dedicated her life to making other people’s lives better, never know quite what to feel – a simultaneous guilt and respect manifesting in seat-shuffling and plenty of applause.
Cilla Snowball, CBE (and AMV frontman) proclaimed her inspiration as her love for work and family – kind of essential, since, from the sound of things, she doesn’t have much time for anything else – and the joy of developing other people.
Jo Kenrick, an ex-RAF fighter pilot (what was I saying about being suitably impressive?) reeled off a list of to-the-point pointers, two of which particularly resonated: ‘It’s ok to change your mind’, and ‘avoid performance management programmes’. Why? They make you miserable. Focus on what you’re good at, instead.
And Annabel Karmel, MBE, spoke about overcoming trauma and how necessity (and opportunism) were the mother of invention for her baby nutrition business.
Part executive inspiration, part group therapy, my first WACL Gathering left me slightly more convinced about my own direction, relieved that it’s ok to learn what you love, and accepting of the fact that misery may be part of the journey, but, as pat as it sounds, doing what you love truly is what makes the journey worthwhile.
Two words with lots of the same letters in them. But if that were all that mattered I could have called this pooper scooper. And I nearly did. Anyway I’m talking about the kind of people who see TECHNOLOGY as a sign and symptom that all is not right with the world, who look at tape players and Commodore 64s through a permanent Valencia filter and believe that the WORST thing to happen to humanity is MODERNITY.
Look, I’m a nature lover. I’ve lived on a farm, and get so anxious when I’m trapped indoors for long periods that I’m liable to throw things. Sharp things. But it doesn’t bother me ON AN INTRINSIC LEVEL to see other people cooing into their cracked smart screen disciplining rows of sweets or firing aggravated birds like chemical warfare. Sorry about the casual allusion to chemical warfare. What really bothers me is the EASE with which so-and-so-know-it-alls castrate these poor lambs with pointed patronism as if this intense connection with the screen was DISCONNECTION to everything else.
You see, in a funny way, all our clicks and swipes and checking and double-checking is in fact our modern-day homing mechanism. Globalisation, immigration, cultural disassociation (and other ‘ations) mean ‘home’ is no longer a place (was it ever?) but a connection – and it is that connection we seek through our plastic portals into the social methersphere.
And the disconnection thus arises not out of a lustful obsession with technology (like men who fuck bicycles) but from way before when cavemen (probably) reprimanded cavewomen for spending too long perfecting that last hieroglyph and missing out on the beautiful sunset. We’re human. We like to be enthralled by things, to lose ourselves in something, anything, and this is no less real than “being present” in any other moment. Unless you happen to be enthralled by your iPrick whilst walking in a malformed zigzag with the pace and grace of a dying sealion and thus WALKING INTO ME which is fucking irritating, you prick, get off your phone and look where you’re going. Prick.
Anyway. Aggressive nostalgia (I am hoping this term will catch on) is lazy and boring and I look back fondly at the time when we didn’t have so many ready-made heuristics to substitute proper thinking. Those were the days.
We like to think of ‘news’ as being something isolated, objective. It happens and we report on it. It exists over there, somewhere. We are mere observers.
Well, not quite. These days, we make our own news. A rumour starts – on Twitter, let’s say. A reader, curious, searches official news sites. Nothing. Questions it, out loud. The rumour circulates. Develops. Mutates. Suddenly the rumour itself is news.
It’s the old ‘tree falling in a forest’ argument. Does it make a sound if no-one is there to hear it?
The answer is: it doesn’t matter. Whether or not the tree makes a sound – or falls in the first place – is secondary to what kind of story we can create from a simple question. From uncertainty. From fear.