Oct 10, 2007

It ain't what you do, it's what it does to you...

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.

Whilst expensive West London hotels remain flooded every night by £60 eastern European hookers and pub philosophers still puff out their chests and suggest that a girl with a short skirt and few drinks in her is asking for trouble, any show that suggests that prostitution is a bit of cheeky, harmless fun has a lot to answer for. I don’t care if one middle class girl managed to make a bit of money and quit the game intact, she’s hardly representative. I’d say she’s the exception that proves the rule in a society in which sex (and the female body) are a commodity, available for purchase 24 hours a day.

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 London’s most prestigious auditorium to nothing but rapturous applause (though perhaps, in a mouth other than Paterson Jospeph’s it would foster a different response). And at no less a prestigious event than the Edinburgh International festival last year, Calixto Bieto’s stage adaptation of Michel Houellebecq’s Platform bristled with projections of hard core pornography and throughout featured a disturbingly anonymous, voiceless young women walking around the rotating stage in nothing but a pair of heels. Nearby the Edinburgh fringe (great theatrical cesspool that it is) has been host to shows featuring Hitler, gang rape, torture, paedophilia, Les Dennis, a gay Jesus, Harold Shipman jokes and (of course) terrorism. In poor taste possibly and hopelessly inevitable in their attempts to be edgy and provocative, but genuinely shocking? Hardly.

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.


Andrew Haydon said...

"He’s December, concealing his modesty with nothing but a copy of The Empty Space and some tinsel"

Yes, yes. Very droll. :-)

Excellent piece, though. There are some subjects which are effectively if not explicitly taboo. A recent-ish edition of Culture Clash looked into the same area in relation to films following the recent spate of torture-porn cinema - Hostel and the like.

Cinema (and by tenuous extension TV and YouTube) already goes a very long way past what anyone would even imagine showing on stage (for a number of good reasons - mostly practical in nature). For example - one of the most spectacularly depressing and morally difficult films I have ever seen is Snoop Dogg's Bossn' Up - a film in which Mr Dogg plays a pimp who sets out to persuade loads of girls to go on the game for him and reaps the rewards. And that was about it. - although thinking about it, isn't that exactly what we're asked to laugh about by Ben Jonson in The Alchemist? (clearly I'm not done with my fascination with how long ago something needs to be before it's suddenly not an ethical issue)

Anyway, the conclusion they came to on Culture Clash was that promoting paedophilia was probably about the limit, and films which did so would have found the line where the taboo is drawn - although, consider either cinematic version of Lolita... I think it is the promotion of unacceptable ideas and practices which is probably most taboo, along with, as you mention, anything which actually seriously compromises the safety of the performers - few people, after all, would relish watching snuff theatre by mistake. It is probably worth bearing in mind that the strongest taboos are probably preserved by our own taste - by which I mean people like you, me and Lyn Gardner. After all, along that critical/practioner/committed-theatre-goer axis rides the success or failure of any given work.

Statler said...

Interesting stuff. So far this year I've failed to be shocked by: parents who killed their children (Aalst), auto-erotic asphyxiation & a rather peculiar fetish (Rupture), far right politics (Turn Me To Stone), suicide (Damascus) and the surreal life and death of 'Cupid' (Venus as a Boy).

What has shocked and disturbed me in productions this year have been scenes of sexual violence. What made for uncomfortable off-stage action in "Dissocia", became genuinely disturbing as the audience of "Killer Joe" watched a violent sexual assault portrayed incredibly effectively on stage. This was truly shocking and painful to watch.

As for actors suffering for their art - Lauder Studio Theatre's play version of Blood Brothers featured a genuinely savage beating of Edward by his mother, and the young actor playing Mickey being given a vicious slap by Linda that left the audience open mouthed.

Apart from such violence the only moment I can think of this year which left an audience gasping was during "The Walworth Farce" when once character forces another to 'white up' for the play-within-a-play. It was one of those "I can't believe he just did that" moments when no one knew how to respond.

But maybe the lack of shocks says more about me than it does the plays I've seen.