18 January 2010

trying to be nice - Trilogy at BAC

After a conversation with my flatmates this weekend, I have been thinking a lot about justice and theatre. Justice, that is, as 'rightness'; the particular set of rules which may or may not apply when we consider a piece of theatre and how it makes us feel or act.

We had been talking about how performance studies was becoming increasingly popular as a training tool for medical and legal professionals, with actors used to create 'lifelike' situations of crisis or dispute which the training doctors or lawyers could use to respond to appropriately.

I thought a lot more about how performance encourages or prescribes response; but more than that, about how attitude and theatre might have an interesting relationship; a relationship which can sometimes be coached or trained, just like the actors in medical instruction videos attempt to train doctors to exercise more 'gentle' or human responses to their patients particular illnesses or tragedies.
Is it possible to use something like a theatrical performance to 'coach' people into being nice?

And what is it about this tricky word 'nice' that makes me think of Nic Green's Trilogy?

The piece is a self-proclaimed feminist performance in three parts, a runaway success as at the 2009 Fringe which enjoyed a recent run at the Battersea Arts Centre and will transfer to the Barbican this weekend.

As the name might suggest, the piece works in three parts.

The first, about twenty minutes in length, is exposition with dance-moves. Green and friend and collaborator Laura Bradshaw enact a 'celebration of womanhood' which culminates in about 50 female volunteers naked and dancing on stage. Which is exuberant sheerly because its participants are exuberant.

This is followed by the longest - and most arduous - part of the show, which is inspired and driven by lengthy projections of Town Bloody Hall, the film of a public meeting on Women's Liberation in 1971, chaired by infamous misogynist (and bad sex novelist) Norman Mailer, featuring Germaine Greer and Jill Johnston.

Projections of the the two speeches delivered by Greer and Johnston are accompanied by - and interspersed with - the five strong company (four female, one male, as in Hall), reciting in unison various statements and parts of the discussion. They begin the section by telling - and sometimes showing us - how they were born; they end, naked, in a cluster, upstage; seven members of the audience, clothed, tracing circles with their arms gather downstage and move across the diagonal so that the groups switch places. (Greenm in preparing the audience for this moment, assures that their presence at this point will make sense when it happens...it does not.)

Finally, a shorter section which makes Trilogy an argument or a structured piece of gentle rhetoric rather than a discursive performance. A mini lecture about women's rights abuses, a proposed solution in the form of a 'Womanifesto', and the culmination: all the audience on stage, some of its female members unclothed, singing Jerusalem.

Re-reading what I have just described, I am surprised (as someone who does consider themselves a feminist but also a fairly critical cynic) that I enjoyed myself. Not least because I notice how different my voice, and experience, becomes when I write retrospectively about something I have seen; when I try to place it in an order or category of meaning or ideology. I thoroughly enjoyed being at the BAC on Saturday; it was as if I was filtering out my apprehensions, saving the political commentary for the blogpost, or the aftershow discussion.

And there were numerous points which jumped out mid-piece that threatened the political integrity of the piece by being so singularly idealistic.

In the third part, Green 'accidentally' showed us a slide, mid 'Womanifesto', of a lady getting stoned to death. The woman was buried up to her shoulders, in a white shroud and sobbing, keening to one side. The image was profoundly affecting - I spoke to many people (all women) afterwards who said that from that point on they were in tears.

Yet I found the inclusion of the picture a little cheap; as if this woman was a victim of great physical torture and injustice, that was becoming a representational ('poetic'?) injustice too. Green did not tell us who this woman was, where she was from, what year the photo came from, or exactly what the situation or conditions of stoning-as-punishment are. Such necessary details make an unjust event more telling, more clearly atrocious, but equally, they are fairer to the event itself.

There is something troubling in grabbing a picture off the internet (even if Green herself knows exactly what it means and where it's from), using it to powerfully influence the emotions of the audience (just before you are about to ask them to take off their clothes and sing Jerusalem, a wildly misread, politically manipulated tub-thumping England song) and not giving that audience sufficient information to contextualise and truly empathise with the victim.

And here is the rub. Green's piece was about celebrating difference, she cried, the difference in every female body, in every name and history of woman; yet there was very little consideration of ethnic specificity, or class struggle. Money, race and gender score a very desperate, confusing trio: and perhaps the key to really finding a place for feminism in 2010 is to acknowledge rather than condemn the inextricable bonds between all of these issues.

What is more, there was a sense in which Green seemed to be aiming for a kind of non-theatre. Sometimes we were watching dance; sometimes we were being sung at; sometimes it felt like a motivational exercise video, sometimes like a weird power-church.
The form was flawed, but it had good intentions, which almost seemed to misplace themselves, unsure whether to wholly unite or respectfully differ. I am thinking here about the role of nakedness in the piece.

I recalled Chris Goode's latest incarnation of The Forest and the Field, and its consideration of the distancing artificiality of nudity, which tries to cast the unclothed body in some kind of interpretive or eroticised, art-ified fabric, opposed to the honesty of nakedness. Trilogy's physical nakedness was underpinned by a certain ideological nudity, or prettifying; a particular attitude which wanted to use performance, to stage openness, in order to make people more open. Like those instructional medical videos, it was acting in order to get us to act nice, in our own lives. But was it giving us the naked truth?

Perhaps such honesty is impossible in a medium which relies on poetic license. Yet at times Trilogy felt like it didn't want to be theatre at all, so little did it use the forms and conventions of its space and tradition.

There was an element of the show which, my friend Jess rightly pointed out, felt a little like a sermon. I am thinking specifically of the final part. Whilst its attitude was not sermonising, delivered in that long, considered, too-smiley broad cadence which seems to have infused contemporary theatre which addresses its audience face on (I think again about the different - thought nonetheless considered, weighted speech of Tim Crouch's The Author ), but the effect it achieved, and the effect it aimed for, seemed to be one of making us sweet; coaching us, like doctors in those instructional videos, to be more 'human' (I am keeping 'human' in deliberate speech marks), as if we had none of that humanity already.

Though I was troubled by some aspects of the piece whilst watching them, I nevertheless appreciated, more than anything else, the opportunity to feel genuinely included and appreciated in a theatre. I am sure that the feeling of security which I experienced at one point of the performance was not entirely shared by everyone, but I believe that it was respected by everyone. As I mentioned in the beginning, its lack of obscurity meant that I as an audience member felt myself in an expansive space of personal contemplation (and this may have been as much due to my mood that night as the performance itself).

But something about Trilogy allowed me to dislocate my very analytical, often quite harsh, defenses and enjoy the event in real time, rather than anticipating all the points or criticisms we might throw at it later. I am aware that this generosity I felt from the performers may well be the effect of a theatre which deliberately appeals to women; I went with four female friends, and afterwards we stayed and talked for a few hours about our mothers, children, changes in feminism through our families' recent generations.

Yet however much our female discussion might have been conducted in a post-euphoric glow after having been naked amongst strangers on stage, or given the optimism and singular simplicity of Nic Green and her company's idealised vision for contemporary sexual attitudes, it was important.
The piece barely registered, its aesthetic accessories- and they were accessories: save for a beautiful moment when the five core cast created a kind of step ladder out of their naked bodies, draped one over the back of the other, and brushing the hair of the person behind them, created a kind of wave of spiralled movement up and down the ladder.

It was the moment of having a throng of naked bodies (all female, bar one) on stage which made me think. Nothing more.

Is it simply because I am female, and this is theatre about 'feminism' that I felt engaged? What did the male spectators think? What did the male actor think?

I feel confused about my response to Trilogy because I cannot pinpoint anything in the form of it which was thoughtful or so discursive; yet it did encourage me to think about what it felt like to be a woman, to be a woman in a theatre, to be a woman in 'the' theatre, to be in a theatre full of women and men, to be a naked woman in a theatre full of women and men.

My confusion over its meld of form and content has led me to believe that this wasn't a piece of theatre at all: it was a display of attitude, its own manifesto, an instructional example.

If we conclude that it is no longer a piece of theatre but an attitude, a display, I wondered whether it was possible to be precisely critical about an attitude or emotional offering? Is it ok for me to morally judge the impulse behind an action, or are we confined to making a more secure judgement of the presentation and execution of that action onstage? Is it ok for me to say the piece was... nice?

I thought about several different aspects of the relationship between attitude and theatre, and between justice and attitude and response. This consideration of niceness, of artistry and attitude also made me wonder about the role of the critic. It is inadequate for me as critic to celebrate a piece for having good intentions even if its resulting art is less satisfactory, or purely transitory. Yet it is human nature to work with the best of intentions and perhaps not quite achieve: it would be social and emotional cruelty to condemn failure to follow through, because we fail at it all the time.

It then made me think about the differences between the collective and the individual experience at the theatre. Perhaps it is impossible to create a collective critical response; but it is infinitely plausible to engineer a collective experience. The difficulty is that I find my sensory reception and my critical disagreement occurring together, offsprings of their mutual conflict.

So whilst I enjoyed the warmth and contact, so absent from contemporary theatre and our daily lives, of the final section as we stood shoulder to shoulder and sang Jerusalem, I felt deeply troubled by Jerusalem itself.

Firstly, as a former English student who knows Blake's prophetic books a little, and disagrees entirely with the cortarizing of this piece of verse from the bulk of Milton.

Secondly, as a feminist and political being who is uncomfortable with any song that has been trumpeted by the Conservative Party for campaigning purposes.

Thirdly, as someone who is Welsh, not English, aware that equalising cultural, ethnic, circumstantial differences for political unity can lead to a dangerous kind of ideological imperialism which feminism both fights, and flirts with, everyday.

Perhaps a show like this can only achieve an either/or: either political engagement and scrutiny; or a celebratory inclusivity, an interactive event. Trilogy will surely be criticised (mostly be some men I know, and respect very deeply) for squaring itself solely at women in a mode which is unable to be as egalitarian as the maxims it preaches. A play about women for women. Thus some might see it as an entrenchment of several divisions between the sexes: after all, no men were invited to come up on stage and take off their clothes.

Nevertheless, it made a necessary and eagerly non-discriminatory gesture which tried to incorporate the women of the past within and about the women of now. And for this particular reason, its singular focus on the female body was an attempted compensation for the deletions of history. Showing the female body, calling on the female presence today, in order to remind us of the physical similarities that bind women together. With a generosity directly opposed to the denigrating gaze which separates viewer and viewed, woman from woman, until they become competing objects for attention. To present the body in a way which is not primarily sexual.

In this sense, Trilogy is not a piece of theatre, but an opening of parentheses, a long moment. For creating a moment of community within the theatre, which transcended actors and audience, it should be acknowledged. But it must be questioned for its own politics, its particular form which seemed so eager to share yet did not offer a spoken dialogue or discussion of issues. It relies upon the men and women watching to do all of the critical thinking: to separate themselves from that collective moment in order to contemplate it.

So what legacy are women to take up now?

No comments:

Post a Comment