The Watch and the Camera or Can Theatre Save the World? A review of “The Encounter” by Theatre de Complicite, Attenborough Arts Centre, May 14th 2016
I work as a dramatherapist and an artist. I know that art offers both a means of personal empowerment, social awareness and, even in the right conditions, of psychological change. How then should theatre use it’s power to connect? Should theatre tell stories that raise social consciousness like Brecht suggested – by breaking the illusion of theatre and helping audiences to become more aware of their society? Or could theatre, as the visionary dramatist Antonin Artaud dreamed, do something else, and become a kind of magical crucible for shifting the substance of consciousness itself, revealing the unknown worlds beneath our fragile and limited sense of our individual ego. Artaud’s dream was bolstered by the fertile currents of irrationalism; listing them shows some of the key movements in our contemporary culture – the birth of psychoanalysis, the idea of a collective unconscious, more contact with ritual art from non western cultures, surrealism, the psychedelic booms and happenings of the 60’s and 70’s, postmodernism’s ongoing project to dissolve both the idea of the self and the fantasy of modern progress.
During this time, the theatrical avant garde created some of the most exciting and challenging approaches to art making of the modern and postmodern era. One of these was Jerzy Grotowski’s intense and sustained attempts to hi-jack acting and use it to create powerful, paradigm shifting collective experiences structured around mythico-theatrical communions of intense emotional states. Theatre, Grotowski famously said, was an encounter. An encounter between actor and witness, myth and self, between play and audience, between oneself and another. Grotowski’s reverence for encounter placed it at the heart of creativity – in the ambiguity of meeting another, stripped of defences, something creative and rejuvenating could take place.
Simon McBurney’s The Encounter incorporates something of Brecht’s social consciousness and Grotowski’s fearless examination of intense states and weaves them into a deeply affecting and illuminating piece of theatre that lives long in the memory, but also poses disturbing questions, not only about it’s subject matter but also about whether it inadvertently perpetuates the problems it critiques.
McBurney takes an openly Brechtian approach at first, starting off with the familiar, a man in everyday clothes, standing on a mostly empty stage that contains only a few bottles of water, some video tape and a large microphone in the shape of a head talking about his daughter’s bedtime ritual. By the end of the play he has inaugurated a startling piece of theatre, a lucid and convincing account of the destruction and exploitation of the Amazon and it’s people, that takes in the fragility of the western idea of the self, the possibility of telepathy, the horror of neo-colonialism, culminating in a savagely powerful psychedelic ritual.
Yet despite the plays ferocious intelligence and creative power, the play also stands on the edge of some dark and uneasy questions about neo-colonialism, and its hidden role in art and culture as well as “out there” where the destruction continues. Does The Encounter inadvertently act as a piece of colonial appropriation, using the exotic Amazonians to sell seats, like a modern day Victorian explorer, a kind of freak show for privileged western audiences to gawp at?
McBurney begins innocently enough, dressed in everyday clothes with an everyday persona, asking the audience to place headphones on their heads to demonstrate the binaural effects of the microphone, which allows him to begin to loop the technology, conversing with a recording of his own voice, interweaving recordings from different times with his own voice, dialoguing with a recording of himself and his young daughter, playing with his live voice and recordings in ways that demonstrate how at ease we have become with the idea of linear time as something disrupted by our personal recordings of the past. Time, recording and narrative will become key themes in what follows – isn’t time just a story that we agree to share? What is the cost of our desire to capture every aspect of our own lives and other cultures? What if everything was a story we tell ourselves – even the idea of a self?
However, McBurney has a story to tell as well as ideas to throw out – the story of Loren McIntyre, who in 1969 got dangerously lost in the Amazon attempting to make “first contact” with the Mayaruna, sometimes called the Cat People for their habit of decorating their faces with whisker like quills. McBurney takes on the role of McIntyre, and relates his story of encountering the strange looking people alone in the rainforest on a national geographic photo quest. Excited about making “first contact” he follows them into the dense rainforest. Increasingly lost, and unable to communicate with them, he becomes dependent on them for his survival. But when he finally reaches their village, something strange seems to be going on. They seem to be in the middle of a crisis, destroying their homes and moving on. Moreover, they seem disturbed and ambiguous about his presence. Waking up one morning he finds his watch and shoes burning. Although he needs his shoes to survive he feels more alarmed at the loss of his camera. He tries to rescue his shoes, and finds his camera high up a tree in the hands of a howler monkey, who rips it in two. The loss of his watch and camera sever his ties to his identity in the western world and from then on he is adrift in the world of the Mayaruna, unable to speak their language. The watch and camera seem to symbolise his (and our) obsession with ordering and capturing experience, time and material reality. But, in this moment of personal crisis he reports something remarkable happened. He began to experience what he interpreted as telepathic communication from the leader of the tribe.
This sets up the main thrust of the plot – that of McIntyre’s narrative of how the gradual but increasing loss of his “civilised” frames of reference and forced immersion in Mayaruna life lead to the disintegration of his sense of self through physical hardship and the destruction of his sense of time. This disintegration increases in the face of the threats to his survival from hostile members of the tribe, parasitic maggots and his increasing awareness that the Mayaruna themselves are going through a moment of crisis of their own to do with their own powerlessness in the face of western colonialism and commerce – far from “first contact” he is one of many other white men with guns, roads, contracts and chain saws who brought slavery, death, sickness, loss of culture and dependence and about whom the Mayaruna are very aware of. Behind them other men would bring bureaucracy, welfare programmes, forced reliances on medical care for diseases they have brought, always underpinned by the threat of violence and the promise of a “better life”.
In contrast to this, the Mayaruna seem to have a deeper spiritual connection with their environment. At this point, several critics of the Encounter have criticised McBurney. Most critics drop in the phrase “noble savage”, but one review goes further, setting up The Encounter as a modern day heart of darkness, in which the Mayaruna’s otherness is exploited to serve little other purpose than a projection for a western guilt trip.
Such criticism echoes Chinua Achebe’s famous attack on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a racist text. Achebe claimed that it was little more than Conrad’s demonising Africans as a way of expressing his own cultural self loathing. Linked to this is the charge by Christopher Innes against the theatrical avant garde of “primitivism” ; that Artaud and Grotowski ’s attempts to create a transformative theatrical language of dream, sound, image and ritual were little more than romantic backward glancing, a noble savage fantasy clad in western theatrical clothing. Anthropologist Michael Taussig has suggested that to animalise and destroy the “wild” exotic other and to simultaneously praise the wisdom of it’s shamanic elders act as two sides of the same coin. The final act of domination that begins with the taking of the land closes with this appropriation of the culture’s secrets – what better way to complete the destruction and colonisation of a people than by stealing their magic and fetishising their elders? Thus tamed and made safe, they can be appealed to for healing and forgiveness, not even for acts perpetrated on them, but for our own narcissistic problems.
Is this a fair criticism of The Encounter? McBurney seems to try to anticipate this criticism through the way he structures and presents the story. McBurney inserts himself as the teller of the story into the story. He punctuates McIntyre’s increasingly fractured hallucinogenic narrative by playing “himself” dealing with the incursions of his 7 year old daughter as he prepares the show. The “McBurney” character is a half disinterested, distracted but kind dad, keen to get on with his work, and willing to “buy off” his daughter with crisps and stories. Her interjections allow him to make one of the more profound points of the play, that of the relationship between consumerism, sentimentality and identity – that our consumerism is anchored to a large extent on our obsession with capturing and documenting our loved ones on photos, videos tapes, and to create a seemingly solid sense of who we are. His placing this story allows him to present himself reflexively – he makes no Artaudian or New Age claims to use theatre to try and adapt the Mayaruna ’s rituals for his own benefit – rather he presents the Dad character as rather helpless anxious “western self” or “ego” that McIntyre finds so flimsy in the face of the terror of immersion in the Amazon. It seems clear by the end that McIntyre’s own sense of the Mayaruna is spectacularly eclipsed by his own descent and confrontation with “his” own cosmic unconscious; he cannot truly participate in their rituals because of his own preoccupation with his cultural shadow.
In fact, the myth that McIntyre really seems to using the Mayaruna to project himself into is the Christ myth, a myth of suffering, betrayal, death, disintegration and rebirth. His story follows this template almost precisely. By the play’s end, McIntyre has accompanied the Mayaruna into their own attempt to “rebirth” themselves, to place themselves into a parallel time beyond the reach of neo-colonialism and death by destroying all their possessions. A play that so ruthlessly exposes the connection between the consumerism of the self and the destruction of the world cannot present a happy ending; we know of course that the neo-colonial, neo-liberal project in the Amazon continues, as does the ambiguous veneration and neo-colonialism of their wisdom through things like the current ayahuasca tourism. McBurney has the grace to allude at the play’s conclusion to the present and continuing struggle of the Mayaruna for land rights in the Amazon and passes on a message from his own contact with their descendents to ask for them to be remembered as real.
McBurney raises important questions as to the connections between consumerism and what we consider our greatest virtue – our sense of connection to each other shown by our love for our children. He suggests this creates a kind of false ego, implying through the narrative that this ego is not impenetrable but relies on the culture that surrounds it to build it’s invisible cage of clocks, photos and individualism. McIntyre’s descent embodies an underlying encounter with a deeper nature in a way that is not comforting or humanistic. Of course, “oneness with deeper nature” is the classic white western ego’s move to ignore the sphere of privilege and destruction and just ask everyone to both ”like it” and “be like it” despite all it’s faults. The Encounter has little to really say about the Mayaruna – perhaps the “noble savage” barbs have some accuracy but i think in some ways that is to miss the point of the play. A disinterested “anthropological account” of the Mayaruna may be just as likely to misrepresent them through it’s tacit sense of the superiority of western knowledge systems – like McIntyre’s camera, the desire to “capture” the other has a colonial and grasping tone. At least McIntyre eventually leaves them relatively unscathed by his presence;some well known Western anthropologists in the Amazon have a shocking record when it comes to the abusive effect of their studies on Amazonian people.
The play evoked a great feeling of sadness in me at the desperation of the Mayaruna ’s attempts to use their cultural mythology and ritual magic to avoid the toxic arm of white civilisation. Like Heart of Darkness, the Mayaruna as the exotic other often seem to act as a projection for the despair and collapse of the white male ego to crumble into in the hopes of a rebirth into a greater whole. Unlike Heart of Darkness, the Encounter seeks to place this collapse within a broader critique of contemporary consumerism, it’s colonial attitude to ordering time and capturing reality – the watch and the camera.
In telling the tale McBurney manages to do something quite astonishing – take the apparent safeness of the normal everyday white western man, the Dad trying to put his 7 year old to bed, and place it against a story that vividly relates how our limited sense of who we really are connects to destructive and coercive preoccupations with capturing experience, nature and time. Like Werner Herzog, who also used the Amazon as a backdrop to show the madness at the heart of the white western mind, he shows how liable our apparently stable constructions of self are to collapse in the encounter with a very different worldview shaped by immersion within a powerful environment rather than control of it. And, if that sentence suggests a scholarly preoccupation with abstract physical concepts then I really have not done the play justice – the visceral intensity of the play combined it’s hypnotic use of binaural sound really do make you feel as if the disintegration of McIntyre’s flimsy western ego into psychedelic rainforest fever and Kurtz-esque despair is your own. As, perhaps, it is. It is an encounter I will not forget.
The day turns into night. Whatever has not been completed now can wait until tomorrow. As I sit down to think about the days events, I recall a dialogue that I had with an interviewer who seemed keen to know more about the music I planned to release. A strange figure in a red mohawk sweater, eager, enthusiastic, slightly unsure of himself, he wanted to ask the questions that I wanted to answer, seemed receptive to the answers i gave. His uncertainty made me feel more certain, and i began to speak about all the ideas that circled in my head around the music, felt my voice stir with the passion of them. He said :
Tell me about Cracked Star in A Broken Guitar
Well, i can explain it, but that would be an explanation rather than a song
I know that, but still, i’m interested.
Ok – well it began with an image that kept recurring to me – the image of a broken guitar with light spilling out. I don’t like to overanalyse the image too much. But this image keeps returning to me. The guitar no longer plays. Yet light pours out if it like water from the crack in a dam. When Orpheus enters the Underworld, he creates a doorway through music. Orpheus entering the Underworld acts as a metaphor for the way an artist enters the imagination, or a musician enters into music. Not a piece of music, but the whole possibility of music, the moment when the guitar is in your hand, and you haven’t yet struck a note, and you have all the possibility of all you might play in front of you. The moment just before when all the music you might play stretches out before you like a body of water, as you might just before you dive into the sea. Jung may have said that in such a moment a musician prepares to enter the collective unconscious. I particularly like Jungian psychology when it emphasises that the collective unconscious and the imagination and the underworld all have the same qualities, or may even be the same kind of thing…
Well, according to one tradition, in order to enter the Underworld, Orpheus had to give up all the harmonies and scales that he had learned, all the formal beauty and play just one note. over and over. until he finds a way into the Underworld. and that playing this note led him to create a crack that he slipped through to enter the underworld. You can see how repeating one note again and again might lead to trance, or a build up of emotional intensity, if the note gets played with the right kind of passion or soul. and that it might be ugly too. I feel a sense in this of how form must be established and then cracked in order to deepen the aliveness of a piece of music. Perhaps life acts like this too. There might not be much to be gained from suffering, the cracks that life offers. Perhaps this is not the same as smashing a guitar, although clearly there has been an established beauty to doing this, from the Who to Nirvana. But some part of the self, perhaps this part that becomes very competent and aware of formal beauty and social convention – when it cracks allows a deepening of the self. Perhaps Kurt Cobain could not quite find the balance of this within himself. He smashed the guitar into pieces when he could have cracked it. I don’t know for sure, and have no wish to judge the dead, or anyone who has made the final choice as he made. In fact though the success of Nirvana’s music rests to a great extent on the response of audiences to Cobain’s insistence on exalting inferiority and weakness and expressing the power within them through music. The way he gradually took on more and more of this, pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair, wearing a wedding dress, crawling across stage, convulsing with the scream of it – think of the scream on “scentless apprentice” and “serve the servants” even the title of that song – a refusal of the cliched heroism of the rock star, or the ego. Perhaps he took the task onto his shoulders too literally – it seemed that part of what broke him was that his the puritan punk demons that drove him turned against him so spectacularly and insisted that he had become what he hated. Also, i think that the process of creating and recording music inevitably leads to a sense that the raw essence has been commodified, caged. Sometimes the whole artform can seem sterile and like it repeats banal cliches. That all creative expression is just a thick pane of glass that separates us from our true feelings. It can be turned down, dimissed, praised, ignored in a way that a living feeling cannot.
But this has become quite a diversion into Nirvana. I think that for the living, it seems important to find a way to honour and value the cracks in a broken guitar. It becomes a way to allow in the underworld of dreams and imagination, in a way that lets them speak through us and with us.
So the cracked guitar stand for these cracks in life? The ones that let in the pain? That sounds painful?
Well, it might be an image of transformation. A way of re-imagining the painful cracks as a means of getting closer to the source. Any creative act re-makes an event and holds it up in the light of the imagination. That doesn’t necessarily solve the problem – after all plenty of songs just recapitulate worn out sentimentalities and reassuring cliches. But at the end of the day, the song to be effective has to stay in the realm of images, rather than explanations. it has to. the song is just an expression of some images that come from thinking about the cracked star in a broken guitar.
so what you just said has nothing to do with the song?
it has something to do with the song. songs that explain philosophical ideas in great detail aren’t always that catchy. that’s what interviews are for.
In her remarkable study of the archetypal figure of Orpheus, Anne Wroe begins with a re-telling not of the mythic poet-singer’s legendary descent to the Underworld, but with a story of a more recent poet. The poet Maria Rainer Rilke, who would only live another four years, wrote the entire sequence of poems over the course on three days, between 2nd and 5th Feb 1922 in what he called “A breathless act of obedience”. For Rilke, it was as if his writing had been visited and touched by Orpheus himself, the archetypal poet. I gave myself over to an improvisation, and the result was “All Angels Are Terrifying”. I want to think about the contradictory values associated with Angels, their sentimentality and power, and how the concept links to imagination as an act of improvisation, something that seems to originate from the outside of the author.
Romanticisism and Freestyle
In his creative approach Rilke’s showed his willingness to dip into the romantic stream that underpins western thought, that irrational and rebellious counterpoint to the steady march of Enlightenment empiricism. The belief that chance combined with inspiration in the moment has a key part to play in the creative act, and that art works best when freed from being considered only as an extension of the human ego has been an important part in the history of art in the twentieth century – from the explorations of Jazz, to the Dadaist use of cut and past techniques in art, from the development of improvisation in theatre to the freestyle flows of rappers and MCs. The feeling might be summed up by Neil Young’s approach to recording music – the first take is the best take. The first take is considered to be the creative act, the moment when it actually happens, when, once again we are surprised by something happening from nothing. Improvisation seems to have a better track record in hip hop than rock. It evolved from party jams and speaking over records, to the intense displays of lyrical one upmanship today. Perhaps there is something Dionysian in the roots of freestyling, in party and celebration, that sense of not caring too much and letting go that seems essential for both a good party and a creative act. By contrast rock’s improvisation attempts at improvisation can easily seem bloated and moribund, noodling over themes.
Freestyling in hip hop, perhaps like punk, offers something refreshingly different seems from the idea of a master craftsman, the lonely genius slowly building a masterpiece. There is a liberation and popularisation of creativity, with the galvanising idea that anyone could have it if only they might allow themselves to be open to it. This idea has been central to the project of creavity in the twentieth century. Inspired by psychoanalysis’s explorations of the unconcious, the surrealists experimented with automatic writing, pushing their creative efforts beyond the rational in an attempt to find a transfigured creative world that revealed a deeper reality. Improvisation, as a form of surrender to what happens, could give access to unconcious dimensions, untapped yet ever present.
The immediate theatre all around- Improvisation and the ever-present reality of narrative
Improvisation in storytelling and theatre shared a similar aim through less celestial methods – the aim of liberation from expectations, strictures and practices of what Peter Brook called “Deadly Theatre”. Keith Johnstone, working first at the Royal Court and later with Loose Moose in Canada, developed an effective and profound approach to Improvisation, that highlighted the living, spontaneous interactive dynamic between actors as the heart of theatre. He showed how through the application of simple rules, the neophyte improviser can tell tales that have the lucidity and interest of folk tales or dreams. Narrative, rather like the meaning of a life, is something that emerges from constant backtracking, reflection, significant events folding around on themselves to shape meaning out of small events that seem unimportant at the time – the fish bought at the fishmarket that swallowed the lost ring, the act of freely given kindness to someone helpless rewarded with powerful aid at a time of later need.
So, we have two ideas about the value of improvision, that sense that something more might arrive from it, that the Romantics could be right, and that imagination might be the gateway to if not the divine, then at least something approaching wisdom, or at the very least a perspective beyond the habitual. The second is that there is some connection between improvisation and inspiration; between committing to the sudden creative act and the touch of what lies beyond everyday conciousness – be it going with the flow, or being touched by the gods. Hillman has called this doman “the poetic psyche”, and speaks of it as that steady stream of images that accompanies life and that going on night and day, conducted in fantasy and whether attended to or not. Hillman, writes from the tradition of Jung, for whom creativity was a gateway to a collective unconcious, a psychic reality that might guide and inform a life. Jung’s own experiments in active imagination lead him into a realm where he spoke with his own images, and they acquired a life of their own; he claimed he learned his psychology from the characters and spoke with that he met in his own imaginative work. His Red Book documents these imaginal encounters, and it is laced with references to angels and daimons, who confront or surprise Jung. One strong feature of his encounters is there insistence of their own reality, and so his conversations with them are forced to take on the character of improvisation.
Angels trapped in cards.
I am looking at a painting of an Angel in a new age store. The shop sells chimes, incense and crystals, alongside fridge magnets with inspirational messages. The Angel stands in the centre under a heart shaped light, in a symmetrically composed image, realitistic, devoid of tension or drama. The effect seems strongly sentimental, the angel is at the centre of her own world, but distant from ours. Angels have returned to popular consciousness in defience of our strong scientific secularism, they frequent new age cards bookstores and social media memes as expressions of hope, or perhaps a strong plea for protection in an insecure world. However, as the book of Isaiah in the Old Testament makes clear, angels as beings of light have an aspect that is potentially overwhelming; he describes his vision of the seraph:
“Above it stood the seraphim: each one had six wings; with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he did fly.”
The extra wings were to protect Isaiah from being damaged by the power and intensity of the divine light. This idea of divinity as something that burns rather than heals finds echoes in other myths; from Semele who tricked Zeus into revealing his godly form and paid with her life, yet giving divine birth to the wild child Dionysos, to Arjuna in the Bagvhad Gita shuddering at the overwhelming reality of the vast and endless cycles of life and death that Krishna reveals to him and asking him to stop. The theme of Angels as too much, as something celestial, fearful, like staring at the Sun, remains in their remit. It seems to evokes something about the way that authority is both longed for and feared, even on an earthly plane, that we wish for there to be higher power, yet fear the consequences of that thought.
Angels have indelibly made their way into popular culture in Christmas cards, fluffy facebook posts and new age books. They seem to have all the power of a Hallmark card Perhaps though, we should not be so dismissive; Anthropologist Susan Greenwood has written in “The Nature of Magic” about entrenched snobbery towards new age practitioners; and argued passionately to understand the need for what she calls after Levy Bruhl “magical consciousness”; that sense of having the ritualised experience of being part of a greater whole. In Her anthropological study of UK magical practitioners, which she describes herself as acting as a mediator between magical consciousness and academia gives respect to people for their beliefs, and seeks to understand them on their own terms.
Of Angels, Islam and Enid Blyton
It seems worth turning back to Hillman’s source Henri Corbin, for in his study of Islamic mysticism we find, according to Tom Cheetham, a very different idea of prayer. Here, in his study of the raptures of Shi ite saints, prayer is understood not an act of beseechment, or of making a request for a higher power for assistence or giving thanks. Rather, prayer is more like an act of imagination itself, one that gives substance to the Angel. that only appears if imagined. If this seems strange, then we might consider what the psychologist Mary Watkins tells us : authors frequently feel as if their books were dictated to them by their characters, no less an author than Enid Blyton confessed that she considered her stories dictations ( and there are some strange and powerful moments; consider the workings of magic in the Faraway Tree, conducted by an inhuman being called Moon Face with a bowl of suphur and a black feather, or the way the different realms wheel around the world tree and trap the children in them in a manner strangely reminscent of Tibetan buddist realms of Hell…)
Corbin offers middle way, where Angels can wend their way into daily conciousness in a way that disturbs it without searing it, released from their sentimental prisons to become gateways to a wider, cosmic sense of awe and elemental power. Angels surely reflect anthropomorphic desires, they show humans better than they are, yet abstracted from their earthly reality they also retain a touch of something cruel, as Milton revealed when he tried to fuse together Old and New Testiments in Paradise Lost; true Angels feel no pain, only fallen ones. The Jungian researcher Robert Romanyshyn touches on something of the connection between medieval theology and modern science when he discusses the desire to transcend reality through a metaphysics of ascention, whether this be located in medieval theology that denigrates matter, or literalised in space age dreams or internet transhumanism. In a crucial ways, the entire scientific frame involves imagining things from a great height to see the whole world, and yet acting as if this were not an act of imagination. In order to generalise, the perspective of an Angel seems to be taken, and we frequently reach for an answer that will capture something of “the whole world”. In contrast, Hillman spoke of words as Angels, and called for an Angelology of words, a way of considering words that referred them back to both their hidden power, and to their power to animate life.
Angels, like roses, can be time worn metaphors, tired and exhausted of vitality. Yet they are also capable of being renewed and released in a creative act to match our aspirations, soothe our fears and to show us the limits of our real abilities. They meet that need that Greenwood speaks of for a “participatory conciousness” in which imagination, as Blake saw might be the bridge to something beyond the material world; the realm of the psyche. Despite 1,000 years of Christianity they retain a daemonic quality, in as much as they seems to point to something both within and without that acts as a mediator to a vaster reality that can only be imagined, and scarcely withstood.
Coda- Angels and the Department of Liberation Coporation
I do not know if any of this explains the song “All Angels Are Terrifying” – as this was my intention and starting point. It t does at least introduce the song; a song that arrives out of improvisation. Perhaps the essay is a way of not apologising for posting an improvisation, in a time where it seems that slick production and creative standards should be easy to uphold.
All I know is that I like this song a great deal, I like it’s sparse intro, it’s brooding and blatently mythical narrative, the way the guitar acts as a reflection on the words, it’s dream like quality, that hints at sense yet hangs together as if in a vision. I particularly like the way it catches fire. It has moments great beauty, and suffers from a flaw just at the moment it seemed like it was going to take flight. Perhaps this adds to it’s value, as a Persian rug with thread unwoven. It may be best to approach Angels with caution and with respect, yet still yearn, as Rilke did, for their touch.
Tis Pity She’s A Whore – by Cheek by Jowl – Theatre Royal Brighton – 9th May
When I was 18 I took an A level in Theatre Studies. I chose the opening speech from The Revenger’s Tragedy, a play written around the time of Shakespeare’s death. In it, Vindice, the Revenger, speaks to his dead wife’s skull, and reveals to her and the audience the forthcoming shape of the plot. His wife has been murdered by the Duke because she refused to sleep with him. He concocts a revenge that will involve him setting himself up as a pimp, and the Duke’s slow painful death from having been tricked into kissing the poisoned lips of his dead wife’s skull. I got a realistic wax skull, playing Vindice as half in love with death, kissing his wife’s skull as he spoke of his imaginative, violent revenge.
The play’s odd hybrid of morality,extremism and pacy, unhinged plot made an impression on my teenage mind, poised at it was between romanticism and nihilism. So when i came to to put down my annual “i -will -go-to see- at- least-one- thing- from -the- Brighton- Festival” money I chose Cheek by Jowl’s version of “Tis Pity She’s a Whore,” a play classed in the same genre of Jacobean tragedy by virtue of being written around the same time and featuring similar preoccupation with sex, death and bloody revenge.
This play doesn’t waste much time in setting up the elements that will lend itself to it’s bloody and tragic conclusion. Act One Scene one Giovanni confesses his desire to consumate his passionate love for his younger sister to a priest. He sets about defending his passion in terms of romantic ideals.
“Are we not, therefore, each to other bound
So much the more by nature ? by the links
Of blood, of reason ? nay, if you will have it,
Even of religion, to be ever one,
One soul, one flesh, one love, one heart, one all”
Giovanni’s transgression of the brother-sister relationships leads to a psychological impasse that culminates in a violent and bloody end for his sister at his own hands, apparently for love. Undeniably, this creates intensity in the plot, which also features poisoning, mutilation and cruel domestic violence. Does this intensity and violence have a deeper meaning, or is it just the Jacobean equivalent of the way some people dismiss modern art – all shock and no meaning?
The play was written during a turbulent period in English history – just 12 years before the civil war, at a time when the King had concentrated his own power in the Star Chamber. The violence in the play was formed against a backdrop of tension and violence in everyday life. The pamphleteer William Prynne, who wrote a 1,000 page treatise devoted to condemming theatre as sinful and immoral, was sentenced to be whipped had his nose slit and S.L branded on his cheeks (seditious libeller). The reason? He had described women actors as “notorious whores” in one passage. The Queen was known to be a keen actress. Twelve years after the publication of the play, the Civil war began that would end in the king’s beheading. Theatre would be banned by the Puritan City Fathers in London. The golden age of theatre that flourished under Shakespeare would be at an end.
So does this production, nearly 400 years later engage a modern audience? Tarantino’s films seems a good comparison, as they too fuses a kind of puritannical rage against moral bankrupcy with a voyeuristic fascination for the depiction of violence. Like headlines in the Sun or the Mail, all that moral disdain about sex and violence permits the depiction of and illicit pleasure in the thing which it says it abhors.
Cheek by Jowl’s production aims make use of this tension by placing the two explicitly sexual acts in the play against the rest of the cast chanting in high church plainsong about the blood and body of Christ. Romantic renaissance passion held in tension with medieval moral stringency. They don’t quite have the confidence to repeat this at the end, when Giovanni enters with his sister’s warm bloody heart in his hand, although this seems the logical conclusion of using this theme. Perhaps it would have undermined the force of the shock at the end, which is what the audience are left with.
Annabella’s red bed provides a central focus for the entire production, a piece of set design that works to continually return the audiences attention to the red bed as the place of desire. The actors stay on stage throughout, often uncomfortably close to the actors, which gives the impression of the impossibility of privacy, and the potential for eavesdropping, listening in when not engaged in action.
The colours of red and black dominate the production, from Giovanni’s red book of incestual poetry to the drawerfull of red underwear turned over by the servant as he searches the room for evidence.
Giovanni is presented as a romantic fanatic, and his sister as a mirror image of him. He broods accoss the stage like an incestous young Morrisey, complete with quiff, red poetry book and existential angst.There are some hints that there is something playful and child like about it in the childish hugs they give each other in the beginning, but this gives way to them being like a kind of Romeo and Juliet, cast out from a world that does not understand. Giovanni himself justifies his incest by presenting himself by what Crystal Spears calls in her essay on the grotesque in “Tis Pity..” “a kind of emotional pioneer” – that the depth of his feeling justifies whatever he does.
The brother and sister’s tragic love is shown to be just as brutal and uncompromising as the violence that surrounds it. Here, Cheek by Jowl here make their most significant alteration to the text. In Ford’s original version, all is played through to it’s bloody conclusion; Brother kills sister and cuts out her heart. In turn he is killed by his sister’s husband who he also kills. Ford then has the disguised Duke reveal himself and command that all the property revert to the Church. Cheek by Jowl cut this and end the play with a semi naked and bloodied Giovanni cradling his sister’s heart. He walks into the middle of the wild party and stops it dead with the horror of his act. No state sponsored church ending for a modern audience.
It is a credit to Cheek by Jowl’s intelligent editing of the script that they use this image as the final one, where what has been described as love is shown to be a grotesque possession. Throughout the play the lean physical score and alterations in tone between dark comedy and horror prevent the play settling into an overblown melodrama. Similarly, the use of the bathroom, into which the audience can partly see and in which most of the violence takes place behind locked doors adds to this sense of voyeurism, and unsettling intimacy. It are these deft touches that turn the play into a dark contempory fable, where the brutality of the 1630’s finds it’s companion in modern day voyeurism. We as audience become voyeurs to a groteque spectacle of the brother-sister lovers. This seems to be where the success of the play lies, rather than in any particularly deep exploration of incest – the scenario seems chosen for it’s ability to transgress rather than any deeper understanding of the complexities of incest. In the end what we get is a sense of our own desire for the salicious. This seems as relevant as ever.