Two moments which are more potent as metaphors than as the relatively simple events they were:
At one point in “Count Me In“, the performer forgot his lines. This could happen to anyone at any time. He dealt with it smoothly, amusingly and professionally, and once he’d been given a prompt, he said, “Oh yes, this is your bit! This is the bit where I ask and you need to say something. That’s why I forgot it.”
At the beginning of “Girl X“, the performer and his chorus introduced themselves to each other, and then the performer turned to the audience and said “What’s your name?” Of course, nobody spoke — but after the seconds of silence I was about to, until he joked “Fine! Don’t talk to me then.” There was no further solicitation throughout the entire show, until the final moments when the entire cast turned to face us directly: a physical, rather than verbal challenge.
“Count Me In“, written and performed by Gary McNair, is a short critique of the vagaries of the UK’s current system of democratic representation. It is humorously presented, informatively clear, and very direct. Throughout the piece the audience is given points at which their opinion is asked, or deliberately not asked: we are asked to vote by electronic device on various questions, we are asked to make decisions as small “constituencies” (including the very real decision of which charity a real £10 should go to, we are enlisted as confederates in a pre-written “debate” in which every opinion is read off a card, and towards the end it is suggested we stop voting and offer direct opinions.
There are many successes, although the show was in a fairly raw and scratchy state. The piece communicates its purpose very well, encouraging through humour a very casual and collaborative atmosphere in the room — it felt more like a presentation or school workshop than a theatre piece. I learned a few things, as I’m sure many did. Several monologues moved me, as a politically engaged person. The jokes were god.
In addition, to an extent the form successfully communicated the content. McNair didn’t just tell us or show us what the problems with our voting systems are: he had us enact the rituals of these systems ourselves. This process was often satirical, which was quite an achievement. And the decision at the end to put down our voting devices and, as he put it, “talk about it”, was genuinely moving. Then moment had meaning: it wasn’t an exercise or a joke, but something which was actually happening.
But then, for me, the show failed. McNair said we would “talk about it”, but actually he showed us three fairly frivolous alternatives to our current voting systems, and asked us for sound-bite opinions on them. Then he asked if we had any other suggestions, and heard two. At no point was there cross-talk: he asked a question, and individuals responded to him, and not the group. This was not a discussion, but just a few token sound-bites. McNair concluded with a fairly bog standard inspirational monologue, saying that he didn’t have any answers yet, but that he had now resolved to commit more deeply to politics. The end.
To someone involved in radical politics, what should have happened at this stage is obvious, and the alternative to voting is obvious. McNair should have relinquished control of the space, and begun to facilitate a genuine, collaborative, free-flowing discussion with the audience about alternatives to voting, and should have helped us decide to achieve them together, preferably through a consensus process. And this, of course, would have enacted one of the very alternatives that could be suggested, just as we had enacted (not acted, but enacted) the problems themselves.
This didn’t happen because the show remained trapped in the paradigm of hierarchical politics, and of hierarchical theatre: it saw politics as people giving opinions and decisions being made by some majority, rather than as the process of groups of people working together to reach collaborative decisions; it saw theatre as one group of people (the artists) communicating their ideas to another group of people (the audience). While the audience was asked to contribute to this piece, they were given no real agency within it. There were interactions, but no deep interactivity. For me, the show built to this point that was full of potential, and then squandered it. McNair forgot his lines at the point when he had to ask the audience a question.
Gary if you’re reading this, I have a question: Have you ever been to a consensus decision-making meeting at an activist event? My guess, from your show, is that you haven’t. And my hunch is that if you went to one it would give you huge and important things to think about with your piece. It is a genuinely different way of doing politics. And I’d really like to see what you’d do with that, because, well, you are very good.
An exercise on the difference between theatre and ritual:
1. Find a friend, and exchange objects with them. You can give them anything, and it’s OK, you’ll be giving them back in a moment. Go on, exchange something. Done that? OK, stage one complete. You can give each other your things back now.
2. Now actually give something to each other. A gift. You won’t be getting this back. Give them something you want them to have, and which you don’t mind giving away. Do it now. Done.
The first stage is theatre, and the second is ritual.
Andy Field, in conversation, last week: “Yeah, I guess theatre isn’t always the most interesting or worthwhile thing for a group of people to do in any given space.”
“Girl X”, from the National Theatre of Scotland, was directed by Pol Heyvaert, and instigated, performed with chorus by, and written in collaboration by Robert Softley (bit of a mouthful describing in a sentence what was clearly an intensely collaborative process nonetheless led by a couple of individuals). It is a staging of debates about a disability rights case: a girl with extremely severe and paralysing cerebral palsy, whose parents wish to give her a hysterectomy and hormone treatment in order to keep her permanently childlike and thus improve her quality of life. (It’s much more complicated than that, as we are shown. Go and see.)
The play is passionate and wide-ranging, covering acres of political ground, looking at the ways in which disability rights intersect with all the major political issues: the authority of state and family, the role of society, the morality of plastic surgery, economics, political correctness, feminism… I could spend a long time excitedly talking about how intellectually, politically and emotionally fascinating all this was, and attempting to negotiate some of the territory myself. But that’s not actually what most interested me.
(This is commentary, not a review, but the reviewer in me can’t help but take the opportunity to say that the set is weirdly huge and dominating, and totally unnecessary, contributing little to the piece, and it pains me to think of how much it cost.)
What most interested me was what was going on with the form. It is staged as an debate between Robert Softley and a chorus of citizens, sometimes in the language of interpersonal argument, and sometimes in the language of debates on internet forums. It’s thus a version of a very old form of Greek play, using just chorus and interlocutor, and examining ethical and political problems through personal experience. But the debates are, while driven by a strong narrative and emotional arc, roving and unresolved: no conclusion is ever really reached. So the play is not just about the subject of the debate, but about the idea of public debate itself. It doesn’t just depict a debate: it IS a debate, presented in such a way as to make its debate-ness all the more obvious. And when the debate using the language of written posts on internet forums, well, the disjoint between text and reality is nothing less than good old Verfremdungseffekt, pointing out again the debateness of what is going on. (Need I point out how commonly chorus and interlocutor appear in Brecht?) This is an exemplary piece of dialectical theatre.
But it is consciously not dialogical. The debate is being presented for the audience, and the audience does not get to take part, except mentally. Given that the play discusses the morality of public debate in itself, and that the denial of voices within public debate is pointed out, this shutting out of the audience, performed (consciously or not) by Softley as a joke at the beginning of the show, itself makes a point. At the climax of the show the whole cast faces us in challenge, their physicality: “Do you have an opinion? And can you speak it? Should you speak it? Really, should you?”
Softley, if you don’t know, has cerebral palsy himself. One of the questions of the show is to what extent people without disabilities are really informed or otherwise empowered enough to offer such strong opinions on disability rights. Sometimes people just need to shut up and listen, and stop needing to perform their own consciousness and needs.
It’s partly funny and partly obvious how I get much more annoyed by shows that try to be interactive and don’t go the full hog than by shows which never pretend to be interactive in the first place, despite the fact that I truly and deeply believe that interactive theatre is the most important and politically essential form of contemporary theatre.