DO WE SANITISE THEATRE IN AN UNSANITISED WORLD?

By 4th July 2016Uncategorised
by Paul Smith    (Picture : Matthew May as Alan Blunt The Cunt in Ten Storey Love Song, credit : Jerome Whittingham)
BREXIT STAGE RIGHT


It has been just over a week now since the results of the EU referendum that shook the foundations of this country – the exact effects of which are still unknown. Britain has been a strange place since then – the only comforting certainty being that we are still terrible at football. 
Of course as a liberal, Remain voter I found the result to be devastating, terrifying and mainly bloody sad but it has to be said that there has also been a disturbing and reductive trend to classify all Leave voters as a bunch of uneducated racists. The truth, of course, is much more complex than that. Britain is divided. It is divided by class, by place, by opportunity and actually, by pretty much anything you can think of. I’d argue that those morons on Twitter who abuse cities like Middlesborough and Hull for how they voted are as unhelpful as anyone. This catchy-headline, blame-passing, nuance-lacking view of the world that needs a remedy. The question shouldn’t be ‘what idiots did this?’ but ‘why did people feel the need to do this?’. Let’s not pretend we have suddenly moved from a tolerant and open utopia to a far-right dystopia because of one referendum. This has been building for a long time and there is nuance here (though admittedly the challenge is finding it).

I was reading Matt’s blog written shortly after the result was announced. In it he calls for us to ‘push ourselves to tell (..) stories to the people that need to hear them’, a statement I wholeheartedly agree with, of course. Though it also got me thinking about the type of stories that will soon be filling theatre across the country. The worst version of the theatrical response is one which cries of fascism, hate and ignorance at every turn. The people who voted to ‘Remain’ moaning about those who voted ‘Leave’ to a bunch of like-minded sympathisers. That’s what Twitter is for, not the theatre. Surely the responsibility of theatre right now is not to state the obvious, not to be reductive or to simplify but in fact to explore the nuance and the humanity of where we find ourselves. To tell stories that examine the part of Britain we do not understand or worse, do not hear about. This brings me to think about our production of Ten Storey Love Song, a production which changed overnight last Thursday.

A CASE STUDY – TEN STOREY LOVE SONG
Ten Storey Love Song was originally a novel written by Richard Milward in 2009. It is described as a ‘love song to a loveless Teeside’ and it follows the lives of a group of characters living in Peach House, the ten-storey tower block that forms the title. These characters are nuanced, flawed and, above all else, searching for love in a world that generally doesn’t love them back.  Most importantly, they really exist in Britain. This is not fiction, poverty porn, nor is it commodification of the working classes.
In a headline these characters would be ‘chavs’, ‘the white working class’ or ‘feral scum’. Often they are a statistic, a punchline or a caricature. Sometimes their existence is denied all together. Rarely are they treated as three-dimensional human beings. 
I’m going to talk about a review Andrew Haydon wrote about Ten Storey Love Song after its original production.

Go read it now.

Welcome back.

​Don’t worry, this isn’t going to become a blog where I justify our show or attack a reviewer. I just want to use this critique as a case study through which I can ask some questions about the nature of theatre. I think Andrew Haydon is an outstanding reviewer (just a matter of time before he uses that tagline, I’m sure); I feel safe in the knowledge that his responses to work will be thoughtful, careful and deliciously provocative. I respect his views on theatre and relish his ability to dig deeper than any other theatre writer I have read. This review is no exception. It’s so carefully considered. Still, when Andrew described Ten Storey Love Song as ‘nazi art’ I was naturally devastated. I’d never been called a Nazi before. I nearly wrote a response to the piece to try and articulate my feelings on it but no AD wants to write a blog entitled ‘Why We’re Not Nazi’s’. In actuality, once I forced my brain to focus on the nuance rather than that awful word I saw what Andrew meant. He is very careful to quantify his statement –

“I do want it to be understood specifically in terms of the anti-intellectualism and anti-Cosmopolitanism, rather than a flailing accusation of racism or anti-Semitism which clearly isn’t there at all”

….and…

So, yes, I found the underlying tow of the narrative staggeringly reactionary and borderline right-wing. But DEFINITELY NOT RACIST. Middle Child Theatre Company ARE NOT NAZIS. Ok? I’m not saying that. I put this thinking out here if only to at least make the company check with itself that it hasn’t accidentally made something that says a lot *extra* to what they wanted”. 

I didn’t quite know what to do with this or how to think about it. I knew I had no real interest in a ‘here’s where we disagree’ type response. I wanted to use this brilliantly provocative and challenging piece of writing to better understand our work and the wider theatrical context we find ourselves in. One thing I was eventually sure of was that we hadn’t accidentally made something that said more than we wanted (aside from the fact that I’m a ‘southern, middle-class ponce’ who made a piece of work that a ‘southern, middle-class ponce’ couldn’t ‘really warm to’ – I felt weird about that, I love the south). We wanted, and always want, to make a piece of work which was challenging to watch and which made us think about, and better understand, the Britain we live in today. To do that I feel we have to show a truthful snapshot of Modern Britain. I decided bite my lip for now.

…AND THEN THINGS CHANGED

Since Brexit, I have thought about our show and about Andrew’s words a lot. The play tells the story of various characters who are making their way in modern Britain, with all of the complexities that brings. The truth, unfortunately, is that some people in Britain hold racist views, some mistrust intellectualism, some have disturbing sex and some use strong language. Some buy into media narratives and others feel hopeless and isolated. Often people are hugely contradictory and massively frustrating. Ten Storey Love Song is, at points, as Andrew says: “anti-intellectual, problematically homophobic, hetero-normative, anti-pornography, anti-Queer, blokey and straight”. Andrew is right. The characters in the play are, at times, all of those things. Unfortunately, I believe that modern Britain is often many of these things too.For me, our show and Andrew’s response to it raised lots of interesting questions about the nature of art: 

  • Do we / should we / can we sanitise real life so that it seems more palatable on stage? 
  • Is theatre about redemption of its characters?
  • Do we attribute the views of the characters to that of the company that made the work? 
  • Can theatre explore humanity without offering a conclusion that we like?

I’m genuinely still wrestling with each of these questions myself and would love to hear people’s thoughts on these (comments section below). I know that in my heart I believe good theatre must ultimately be about the pursuit of truth, something that Luke talks about brilliantly herePost-Brexit these questions feel more prescient than ever. Of course, the above problems are not purely related to Leave voters, nor are Remain voters perfect specimens. I am also 100% not interested in sticking up for people who spread hate and fear and are truly bigoted. However my overwhelming feeling is there is a Britain out there that I see day-to-day but which I rarely see authentically represented on stage, a Britain which I am not always convinced the theatre world understands, or is interested in trying to understand. The original iteration of Ten Storey Love Song never dreamt of an ambition as grand as making sense of Brexit Britain but it now feels like it is our responsibility to start making sense of our divided country, and not by judging or by sanitising. We’ve since made changes to our show, and are excited to hear responses in Edinburgh. However it is received, this is well and truly and play for now and which irreversibly changed on that night in June. It may be that our play is all kinds of offensive and politically misplaced – who knows anymore – but I promise we won’t make you sit through an hour of ‘Leave voters need to be educated’.

​Andrew’s final paragraph is one that has stuck with me and seems to have added resonance today – “apart from finding it hard to know what to do with the undercurrent that I found myself unable to ignore, it’s not at all a bad show. It’s well done. It’s fun. It just disturbed the fuck out of me. Which is a weird way to spend time in the theatre”

I’ve said similar about how it feels to be living in Britain right now. I’m interested in how our theatre responds to that, warts and all. Should theatre censor itself in order to look towards an ideal society or does it show a true reflection of the world we live in?

The point of Ten Storey Love Song is that without love, without compassion, without each other we are fucked. In a divided and mistrustful Britain I think it is important that we remember this.

Oh look, Farage has just resigned.

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