Friday, 7 September 2012

How I read Boys, or: is your play right?

The below essay, written mostly in June this year, maps out how I watch or read a particular sort of play. Perhaps it's grotesquely unfair. Perhaps it's stupid. Perhaps it's not how I'm meant to have watched this play or plays like it. On the other hand, reading back, it still touches on a lot of issues that I find interesting, live and problematic about Britain's “New Writing Culture” (as perhaps best delineated in Aleks Sierz's godawful-but-useful know-your-enemy study Rewriting the Nation) and about wider questions about current thinking in British culture.

It also taps into something that came out of a couple of conversations I had with Chris Thorpe in Edinburgh on the subject of confirmation bias – perhaps the most useful term in relation to criticism I've yet come across. Essentially, a term that explains that: We See Whatever We Want To See. Or perhaps, even more damaging or fundamentally: We See Whatever We are Capable of Seeing.

This issue – of how different people (and different critics) see things according to their own worldviews – touches on a number of issues that I've been finding increasingly important in questions around criticism recently which, along with a few other things, I'm hoping to write about in the next couple of weeks...

I had kind of thought I wouldn't write a review Ella Hickson's new play Boys. And in a lot of ways, I'm still not going to. [And, this far down the line, it seems safe to say I haven't.]

I'd hitherto avoided Hickson's work because, well, I've got a certain amount of choice in what I go to see at the theatre, and none of her earlier plays – Eight, Thingy, and Precious Little Talent – really sounded much like my bag (i.e. none of them seemed to involve animal heads, full-frontal male nudity, stage mess, or a massive metaphor about capitalism, right?). And I can't see everything. So those were some of the things I didn't see.

So, what changed it for me when it came to Boys? Well, firstly, it was being done by Headlong. Headlong are probably still one of my favourite British theatre companies (although, thinking about it, I hadn't actually seen a Headlong show before this one for about two years), and I reckon Rupert Goold has got one of the most interesting and intelligent theatre-brains currently working in Britain. So that was one recommendation.

Then there was some of the Twitter-buzz. I think it was Lyn's post-show Tweet “Ella Hickson's Boys @sohotheatre, fearlessly acted, very funny and multi-layered. Like its ambition even if it's a mite baggy. ‪#stage‬” and Matt Trueman's declaration: “Hickson wrestles with something massive in Boys. She can't quite pin it down, but the play is sort of all the better for that. Brilliant.” that made me think there might be a bit more to grapple with. I had a spare evening and wanted to go to the theatre so I thought, why not? And, in funny way, I did find a lot to grapple with; albeit, not in an entirely pleasurable way [sorry. Grim image. Will hopefully rethink this at some point].

At that point, I thought I'd probably still sit on my hands a bit and not really say anything about it. Except, being me, I didn't quite keep my opinions to myself. I tweeted a couple of thoughts. Not entirely favourable thoughts. Thoughts which suggested that, although-somewhat-restricted-by-140-characters, the play might be “a bit right-wing”.

Which, given that I basically despise “Twitter-reviews” – even those “full-length” MSM reviews which seem to be written entirely in cryptic, failed epigrams get on my wick – was stupid of me. Never air thoughts that require a bit of explaining or unpacking in an environment manifestly unsuited to doing so. Especially when you don't really want to explain them further or unpack them.

But, since I've since got into umpteen written conversations about what I meant by saying I thought Boys was quite a right-wing play, I thought I might as well have a stab at explaining it here in writing.

First things first: I should begin by offering a word of praise for Rob Icke's production. I haven't read the script – I don't even have a copy, which might make this analysis a bit less precise than I'd like – so I'm guessing when I say that I imagine Icke's production absolutely “serves the play” or “realises the playwright's vision” in just about as full a fashion as as those phrases can intend. I did have a few issues with the play's structure, but not having been anywhere near the process I have no idea whether Icke was handed pretty much a more-or-less finished article which he just left alone, or whether there was more of an element of *British Dramaturgy* (a misnomer. When the British say “dramaturg” they basically mean “script-therapist”) involved in the rehearsal room. If the latter is the case, I'd say a firmer hand could have been applied with the red pen, but broadly this is a rather well-directed production.

My real issue isn't with the production, which struck me as about as sympathetic a way of conveying the play in a way that made it both acceptable within mainstream British conventions, while still displaying a slight sense of inventive, youthful chic. This mostly takes the form of Chloe Lamford's detailed naturalism-with-a-twist very precise student kitchen set, albeit one without walls, and flanked by banks of gloomy orange floodlights, which glow ominously and/or metaphorically at key moments (lighting designed by Michael Nabarro). [Ok, if I'm being candid, the fact it looked exactly like a kitchen (albeit one without walls) did make me roll my eyes, but it was still objectively a neat take on the thing. And, if the play had been different, I could have learned to love the set.]

So whence all my grumbling about a “right-wing play”?

I should start by trying to explain what I even mean by “a right-wing play”. I'll start straight off by acknowledging that it's a clumsy construction. It's not mine. It comes from that rash of articles written around '07 and '08, when *a lot* of bored hacks jumped on a rather rickety band-wagon of wondering “why is all theatre left-wing?”, “where are all the right-wing plays?”, or similar. And decrying the “Theatre Establishment™” as a monolith of Bolshevik Group-Think. Or something. [I wrote about it here at the time.]

There's also the question of whether *a play* itself has politics. Or whether theatre is a reliable enough structure from which to transmit *politics* anyway.

In Britain, what people generally boil it down to mean is something like a suggestion that a writer can advance their view of The State of Things by what they choose to put on stage. By the story they choose to tell. By the actions and choices their characters make. And by the consequences that these actions and choices lead to.

Perhaps the most basic formulation of this is Miss Prism's observation in The Importance of Being Earnest: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

It works as a joke because it sounds true for the split second it needs to. It implies that the opposite is true about real life and we smile the first time we hear it because of this curious collision of the flippant and amused with the cruel and cynical. And we forget that Hamlet or Oedipus are also fiction.

For the purposes of this essay, though, we are interested in Wilde's designation of “the good” and “the bad”. I think we can safely assume that Miss Prism does not intend the happiness of any given character's ending to serve as an index of their goodness. Rather, she is unwittingly (or as the unwitting agent of Wilde's wit) making a joke of a certain strain of fiction that rewards virtue through narrative outcome.

However, as the examples of Hamlet or Oedipus suggest, there is another school of thought on the matter. Let's see what Aristotle – here simplified to a level easily comprehensible to a five-year-old for American university students – has to say about how “good” and “bad” characters function in relation to tragedy:
  1. A totally good man must not pass from happiness to misery. This will make the audience angry that bad things happened to him. They won’t pity him so much as be angry for him. 
  2. A bad man must not pass from misery to happiness. This won’t appeal to the audience at all because they won’t want to see evil rewarded. 
  3. A bad man cannot pass from happiness to misery. The audience won’t feel sorry for him because they will believe he got what he deserved. The true tragic hero cannot be too good or too bad, but he must end up in misery. 

So, to put it very simply: a “good” character character can end happily (“Fiction”, or in Shakespearean terms: “comedy”.), or badly (“tragically” (or “factually”?) – provided that, at least according to Aristotle, the dramatist has had the good sense to demonstrate to their audience that their protagonist wasn't “totally good”).

Thanks to some fairly fundamental shifts in the way that we think about things – about people, about “Good” and “Bad”, about the arbitrary nature of the universe and apparently about what audiences are prepared to put up with – all the above certainty has taken a bit of a battering in the 2,500-odd years since it was set down. However, I'd say that as far as “political” “plays” go, many of the above formulations could often still be seen to have some bearing.

Leaving aside for the moment the extent to which “Left” and “Right” might be terrible, increasingly non-functional labels for how people think about politics; or pretending that we've already fine-tuned the definitions to our satisfaction; I think we could tentatively claim that sometimes pretty much the same process takes place.

A “left-wing play” can show a situation where either a “left-wing solution” prevails, or else is can show a “right-wing” victory, and the play can be designated a tragedy. Ok, it's rarely that black and white, but just as we almost instinctively discern an ancient author's opinion of whether his character is “good” or “bad” from the way that the narrative coalesces around them, do we not also apply a similar logic to how we understand the “politics” of a contemporary play?

It's actually a question I've been interested in for ages: how do plays actually broadcast or transmit their sympathies?

As I tentatively suggest above, it's a combination of: the choice of subject, the choices of things to show on the stage, the choices characters make and the consequences of those choices, and perhaps the range of opinions and thought-processes which are offered to the audience.

These elements and the way that they combine could be argued to suggest the playwright's (or, more properly, playwright + director + designer's + actors'/ensemble's/makers') worldview.

Or perhaps they don't.

One good recent example of how these different elements can be differently construed can be found in the debate about misogyny in Three Kingdoms – essentially, this was an argument between a bunch of different people, who all ostensibly shared very similar super-objectives and beliefs, albeit with some really fundamental differences about how they thought theatre might/can/should/does operate.

A blogpost I've sometimes wondered about writing is one that would ask questions about comfort zones and more “difficult” strategies. I think it would be about the extent to which any audience that claims to want to be “challenged” is actually comfortable with something that really is challenging.

After all, “challenging” is a description we hear theatre companies use of themselves often: “we want to create challenging, provocative work...” etc. And yet, time and again we also hear the accusation that “political theatre” “preaches to the choir”. And I think there's something in that. After all, here I am grumpily (and long-windedly) trying to get to the heart of my dislike of Boys, and a lot of it is clearly predicated on the extent to which I violently disagreed with what I understood to be its premises.

And yet, the piece I wanted to write about “comfort-zone-challenging” would have looked at the disappearance of the strategy used by, to take an obvious example, Throbbing Gristle. Here was a group who pretty much revelled non-stop in violent, sadistic, right-wing imagery and yet who are pretty much hailed by left-wing avant-gardies. I did hint at something similar using Laibach as an example. But, what I find interesting about this strategy is how much less willing people seem to be to accept what is, superficially at least, a very similar tactic from a band like, say, Death in June. A band whose own cryptic use of fascist imagery, rather than attracting acclaim for their appropriation of Nazi-iconography, tends to get them dismissed as rather dim proto-fascists (a good example of such dismissal here). But I still have a fair number of hugely intelligent, highly attractive, very left-wing friends who listen to Death in June, who have come to some sort of a negotiation with the band's provocative flirtation with fascism. And then, from here, to consider how *no one* listens to bands like Landser or Skrewdriver (both links to songs that anyone left of Hitler will find horrible).

What people seem to really want is for their “challenges” to be meant in good faith. Or to be challenged by those whose agendas for challenging them map largely onto their own desire to be challenged. Otherwise, we might as well all “challenge” ourselves by just reading Mein Kampf, The Fountainhead, and the Daily Mail while listening to No Remorse. Right?

Which was kind of how I felt watching Boys (which I'm not for a moment comparing to Skrewdriver or Mein Kampf). Rather than watching a controlled bit of thought-experimenting by someone whose thought processes I'd have guessed largely accorded with mine, it felt that either I was watching a parade of uninterrogated ideas and received wisdoms which had been unwittingly crafted into a state-of-the-nation play, or I was watching something very deliberately right-wing, which had been hailed as all sorts of “insightful” by my peers and colleagues.

And here we come to another problem – after all, perhaps Hickson only wanted to *show* us these slightly flawed, grubby, not very beautifully-minded “boys” (much as I argued that Stephens and Nübling only *showed* misogynists, but didn't create something misogynist). Perhaps this world Hickson portrays is the world as she sees it, or even as she fears it is. I mean, it's not like what the figures in Beckett's Endgame say set out a particularly likeable or even workable set of worldviews. So why am I miffed that Hickson's don't either?

Perhaps its their “realism”. I must have discussed realism or naturalism on stage until I've bored everyone to tears. If you happen to have missed all that, I reckon this piece from 2008 covers a lot of the ground. Essentially my argument is: when you put an actor on stage in something fictional-yet-realist, then that figure tends to *represent* a good deal more than if you saw precisely that character in real life on a bus. It's perhaps just an interesting by-product of the way we grow up and are taught/learn to watch theatre in a culture that is (still) mostly mimetic.

A person with a specific set of characteristics and attributes (gender, sexuality, race, disability, etc.) when *on stage* can easily be taken as a *representative* of those attributes, and what that character then says and does can easily be understood to be an animated version of the author's own attitudes and expectations of someone with those attributes. It is also a practice to which the audience (perhaps “dangerously”) brings a lot of their own prejudices, or at the very least, their understandings of other people's prejudices.

As a general rule, this possibly applies least to straight, white, middle-class males – since thanks to history there seem to be so many more of them in plays (and writing plays, and directing plays, and acting in plays (and, yes, possibly *reviewing plays*)), so they might get sometimes get away with representing not much more than their own character's point of view – I imagine something like Democracy is a perfect example of this (although I've yet to see it).

Boys is about five blokes living in a student flat in Edinburgh. Two of them are students, two of them aren't, and one of them has recently killed himself (he doesn't actually appear in the play). There are also two girlfriends, one of whom seems to be almost entirely without purpose and the other is self-absorbed almost to the point of sociopathy. Presumably Hickson has only avoided charges of misogyny, a) by being a woman, and, b) by taking such a dim view of the men (at least *these men*) that to single out what appears to be her evident dislike of (these) women would seem a little bit unfair.

The play is set during an odd conflation of the Edinburgh refuse collection strikes of 2009 and last summer's riots. These form the background to the much-less-important twentysomething melodramas playing out in the boys' flat.

Well, partly. The collection of rubbish does also turn into both a focal point for some ideologically charged exchanges between the characters. Also, more troublingly, it seems to also function as a metaphor for society (or perhaps it's young people in society) itself.

A crux/crunch point comes when Benny – the character whose brother has committed suicide – and Mack – the character who had already unthinkingly started an affair with said dead-brother's sociopathic, posho girlfriend, shortly before he killed himself – have an argument about who should be collecting the rubbish.

Mack's basic position is fundamentalist neo-conservatism of a sort even the Tory party don't admit to having; he proposes that refuse collection should be privatised. What's interesting is that, even in the face of this preposterous undergraduate argument, Benny is incapable of stringing together a coherent case against it. He mutters something generalised about the miners' strike and sits about looking like the sad-sack whose brother has recently killed himself that he is.

While not exactly presented as a sympathetic character, Mack does seem to be Hickson's favourite. His blunt, macho, emotionally-stunted philosophy of self-reliance seems to be being presented as admirable, a fait accompli, “common sense” and *self-evidently* the most laudable course to take in the modern world. And he gets the girl at the end. No tragic end for him. Mack ends happily.

Moreover, Mack's other point used to silence Benny is that, as students, and therefore not-tax-payers, why should they expect to have their rubbish collected for free anyway? It's the should of those endgame arguments tossed around in the right-wing press around the time that tuition fees were put up. That students are essentially serving themselves by going to university. That education in general was not of benefit to society, and therefore to be paid for by society, but of benefit to the individual and therefore to be paid for by the individual. It's “No Such Thing As Society” turned into a character in a play. And, apparently, a character in a play who, despite his flaws, we're supposed to take seriously.

I mean, there is an interesting problem here in that all the characters without exception are either objectionable or slightly pathetic. Often both. And part of the problem with the play is that being stuck in a room with them and their mostly rather trivial problems is a bit like being stuck next to a similar sized party of drunk students on a train. You can't escape their inebriated wrangling for a couple of hours even though you very quickly couldn't care less about them.

But I digress.

To conclude, I reiterate wholesale the paragraphs that I first wrote down here and then copied and pasted to the top to create an introduction:

The above few paragraphs [I'm now writing in September] pretty accurately map out how I watch or read this sort of play. Perhaps it's grotesquely unfair. Perhaps it's stupid. Perhaps it's not how I'm *meant* to watch this play or plays like it. On the other hand, reading back over it just now, it still touches on a lot of issues that I find interesting, live and problematic about Britain's “New Writing Culture”.

It also taps into something that came out of a couple of conversations I had with Chris Thorpe in Edinburgh on the subject of confirmation bias – perhaps the most useful term in relation to criticism I've yet come across. Essentially, a term that explains that: We See Whatever We Want To See. Or perhaps, even more damaging or fundamentally: We See Whatever We are Capable of Seeing.

This issue – of how different people (and different critics) see things according to their own worldviews – touches on a number of issues that I've been finding increasingly important in questions around criticism recently which, along with a few other things, I'm hoping to write about in the next couple of weeks.

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