Friday, July 06, 2018

Controlling the Narrative

The Town Hall Affair
In the week that saw Robert Lepage's new production SLĀV closed in the face of accusations of racism, I want to explore some of the underlying issues which may be leading to the wave of protests sweeping over intercultural performances recently.  SLĀV is far from the first production by a white male director to be condemned in this way.  Think of The Orphan of Zhao,  In the Depths of Deep Love, and Exhibit B.  In most of these cases, the question of casting to race (or not) has been central -  but Exhibit B had an entirely black cast, and was still widely (and in my view very unfairly) denounced as the racist work of a white director.  The question seems to me not only who performs a role, but, perhaps more crucially, who controls the narrative.

The question has been at the heart of three very remarkable productions I've seen over the last few weeks.  In The Town Hall Affair, the Wooster Group reproduce the famous 1971 “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation”, chaired by the pugnacious novelist Norman Mailer.  Or rather, they reproduce the documentary film called Town Bloody Hall, produced by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and released in 1979.  In the play, excerpts from this film (and from Mailer's own vanity movie, starring himself as a film director running for President) are played on screen, while the actors synchronise the dialogue, right down to the ers, ums and coughs.  The effect is at once very funny and deeply disconcerting.  It points up that, just as Mailer, Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston battled for control of the evening through the use (or subversion) of the conventional structures of a panel discussion (and the production redresses the balance by allowing Johnston the last word that Mailer had not admitted); so the filmed record, just by being a mediated record, has itself become the narrative.  By reproducing the dialogue of the film, the Wooster Group dispute its absolute authority.  As Theodor Adorno argued, in mimesis there is a kind of doubling - a hint that the "reality" of the "real" (or here, of the accepted narrative, which is perhaps the closest we can come to the "real") is not absolute.  By exposing the performed nature of the "real", they suggest the potential for alternatives - other ways of doing things.

Lady Eats Apple
Back to Back Theatre's Lady Eats Apple also disrupts and disputes a received narrative - in this case, the book of Genesis.  There are two gods - one played by a learning disabled actor, one not.  The god played by the learning disabled actor creates a man and a woman - also played by learning disabled actors.  He says that they are perfect.  He also says that they are not very intelligent.  In the play's final act, this Adam and Eve, expelled from Eden to become cleaners in the vast space of the Barbican auditorium, take tentative, delicate steps towards an intimate relationship.  They also try to revive the god played by the neuro-normative actor: but he is dead.  Of course he is.  We can't rely on the old myths any more - we have to re-create ourselves in our own image.

In Fatherland, another superb LIFT show at the Lyric Hammersmith, these questions are applied to our own country, and to personal relations between fathers and sons.  Subtitled Songs and stories from a forgotten England, the play endeavours, through staging verbatim interviews, to find a theatrical space for working-class men from the North of England.  These are voices we rarely hear on our stages - "I've never even been in an effing theatre before" says one interviewee - and have rarely heard in our political spaces either.  Until, of course, the Brexit referendum, which another character calls "an opportunity to kick Westminster in the bollocks."  The tensions between the men portrayed in the play and the men who made it are palpable - and deliberately not resolved.  If theatre aims to "give voice", does that not suggest that somehow "voice" is something in the gift of theatre-makers?  Does our control of "voice" and "narrative" not undermine our intention to disturb and challenge?  Are we not every bit as much part of the status quo as the political system we think we are battling?  As one of the characters in Fatherland says to the author and directors: "You're going on a little daytrip to get ideas and make it seem like you really care about what life is like here for people like me....    and you don't.  You just don't."

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