Well, hats off to Andrew Haydon, who has made a gloriously successful transition from lowly theatre blogger to the Guardian’s latest pin-up boy (Get your 2008 calendars now, he’s December, concealing his modesty with nothing but a copy of The Empty Space and some tinsel).
In his most recent post Andrew (or at least his bi-line editor) asserted that Belle de Jour (apparently the scandalous tell-all book on which Billy Piper’s new televisual exercise in barrel-scraping is based) wouldn’t shock onstage, reeling off an impressive medley of plays from the restoration onwards extensively covering the subject of that oldest of professions.
My own feeling is, as I believe some of the comments point out, that the furore over this particularly staggering piece of mediocrity has less to do with its subject and more to do with its presentation. Shows from Kay Mellor’s sublime Band of Gold to the ridiculous Moll Flanders (starring the equally absurd Alex Kingston and a young Daniel Craig) have covered the subject in no small detail with nary a flutter of a coach potato’s eyebrow. The difference with The Secret Diary of a Call Girl is only the jaw dropping cynicism of its slickly packaged, half hour of guilt-free titillation masquerading as some kind of ‘true’ confessional.
But look at me, getting distracted by a passing soap box. The real reason for all this chatter was that young Mr Haydon’s post got me thinking. What is still taboo on stage?
Recently of course, we learned that the word nigger can echo across
There is an argument that in the sealed off space of theatre nothing is taboo. Separated as it is from the real world by the edge of the stage and a hearty round of applause, in the bubble of theatre, anything can happen without undermining the values we live by. Hence while transvestism out in the real world is a fabulous and (for many) uncomfortable challenge to our narrow conceptions of male and female, on stage it is the oldest joke in theatre. And it is interesting to note that in Bieto’s Platform, the moment the first few claps signalled the end of the performance, the actress who had remained naked throughout the previous two hours was quickly covered by a robe.
However, as I argued recently, this membrane protecting the world of theatre from the real world is an imperfect barrier. Certain values bleed over the divide. For example, as the Told by an Idiot’s experience on Casanova might suggest, while watching a heterosexual couple simulating sex, it is almost impossible for the woman not to appear to be in a position of weakness or inferiority. Clearly there have been several too many images of the likes of Billy Piper sprawled, doe-eyed and scantly clad, across giant billboards, magazine covers and advertisements and when we see the same on stage its almost impossible to abandon the values that these images implicitly reinforce.
So what else might have this same effect? Or what else might we see on stage that would reach out into the stalls and prick us from our cosy, cosseted safety? What will remind us that actually we’re not so far from the real world after all, and have us squirming with discomfort?
Anything that toys with illegality seems to have the desired effect – jerking the audience into an acknowledgement that the stage is still part of the wider world and (most) of its laws. Someone carefully rolling a joint and that (for most of our present cabinet at least) familiar smell wafting over the stalls would likely have people scanning their row nervously to judge the appropriate response.
Possibly, another alternative, one that similarly undermines that neat division between theatre and the real, might be to see someone genuinely suffering on stage. I was told recently of a solo show in which a performer delivered a monologue while drinking four bottles of whisky, lined up as an almost endless series of shots, glistening across the breadth of the stage. As the show got into its stride there were contented gurgles of laughter as the audience watched the performer slurring and swaying across the space. By three quarters of the way in the guy was unable to stand, collapsing on the floor with a loud, resonant slap. Now the audience were uncomfortable, gazing on helplessly, even desperately at an image of reckless, drunken suffering sprawled on the stage in front of them.
However, as uncomfortable as this may have been, was it really taboo? The audience by the end was exhausted, traumatised but almost universally thankful for the experience.