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Cruelty in Practice

Thoughts on the mechanics of dark theatre.

Written for the MiSC; the St Peter's college arts magazine.

It is unusual, to say the least, for someone to associate severe emotional distress with a great evening out. The theatre world is inundated with light-hearted comedies, feel-good musicals and half-baked sob stories. It is all too easy for an audience member to passively let the experience wash over them; to simply acknowledge what’s been put on stage without truly engaging with it on a deeper emotional level. Of course, this is not by any means a bad thing. A play can serve many purposes, and whether it makes you laugh, cry or engages the intellect, it can be a valuable experience.

What is intriguing, however, is that an audience member can sit through some of the most brutally disturbing and uncomfortable hours of their life, and yet somehow derive great pleasure and worth from the experience. Directly assaulting the audience’s senses, if done correctly, makes a passive experience practically impossible. The most commonly cited theory behind this is Artaud’s ‘Theatre of Cruelty’, outlined in his book ‘The Theatre and its Double’. A notoriously eccentric character, Artaud spent much of his life confined to psychiatric institutions, and whilst much of his writing is too cryptic to be considered directly relevant, there are moments of genius which have shaped the foundations of contemporary theatre: ‘Our sensibility has reached the point where surely we need theatre that wakes us up, heart and nerves. […] If theatre wants to find itself needed once more, it must present everything in love, crime, war and madness.’

This theory was the driving force behind our production of Mercury Fur at the Pilch last Hilary term. The play follows two young siblings in a dystopian London riddled with hallucinogenic butterflies. They survive by throwing parties at which their rich clients are enabled to live out their sickest fantasies. Ridley’s script is remarkable in a number of ways, but its most significant success is that it isn’t governed purely by an intent to shock. We are introduced to colourful and sympathetic characters, speaking in a language that is richly poetic in its inventive profanity, and only as the play progresses are they forced by circumstance to commit the unthinkable. The depth and complexity of the characters avoids more directly shocking moments seeming cheap, and our identification with them makes the sickening climax all the more disturbingly powerful.

Creating a piece of theatre based on Artaud’s principles creates a number of interesting challenges and opportunities. Our first consideration was how best to treat the audience as an active presence in the studio space – to stop them being mere spectators. We committed to cramming audience members into tight claustrophobic rows, integrating entrances for the cast through the main body of seats, entrapping the audience. Working with John Paul as an understanding and proactive producer was invaluable – his vast list of trigger warnings alone speaks volumes for the amount of care that had to go into the planning and right public image. Technical aspects helped to further immerse the audience, with a subwoofer placed behind the back row and high intensity strobe lights implemented for relevant moments. We even had James Lavin in character as a bouncer on the door, directing insults at unassuming audience members to knock them off-balance before entering the space.

We also realised that it is essential to maintain absolute believability in the portrayal of violent events on stage. If done sloppily, they become laughable, and completely undermine the emotional integrity of the play. Our commitment to realism in these moments was made possible by Marcus Knight-Adams’ role as ‘blood designer’ – from taped-up plastic forks as broken bones to a deadly porridge-wotsits combo as a worryingly convincing vomit mixture, not shying away from the grim details allowed a direct confrontation of the audience’s sensibilities. Whilst this was effective for the main body of the play, it was an important realisation for us that the darkest moments are most powerful if left to the audience’s imagination. Having already built up a vivid world of violence on stage, the audience are more likely to picture concealed events in disturbing detail. For the climax of the play, the stage itself was left completely empty, with the horrific events happening behind the audience, heard but not seen. It may seem unusual to leave the audience sitting in front of the empty stage, but through denying them the power of seeing these events unfold, in turn forcing them to piece it together in their own heads, audience members became true psychological subjects, nauseated by their own twisted imaginations.

Whilst the constructed ‘abuse’ of the audience takes much consideration, it is even more important to ensure the comfort and mental wellbeing of the cast when approaching pieces of dark theatre. In our pursuit of emotional truth, it was essential that each actor was able to build a realistic picture of their character’s psychology. We appreciated that in order to reach this level of intimacy we first had to focus on creating a supportive environment in rehearsals. Before touching the script, we ran a large workshop with the cast. This aimed to break down the social and physical barriers between cast members, enabling us to discuss direct approaches to the more complex emotional issues behind the characters. The trust built within the cast in these early stages was invaluable once the play began to take shape, ensuring that each actor felt fully able to push themselves to the intense places needed to do justice to Ridley’s brilliantly distorted world.

Our experimentation with Artaud’s theories is being taken further in our upcoming production of A Clockwork Orange, showing in London at the end of September, and playing at the O’Reilly in Oxford in 1st week of Michaelmas. Whilst the play is similar to Mercury Fur in its subject matter, the nature of its cruelty is widely different. Whereas Mercury Fur builds towards its darkest climax, Clockwork remains consistently vulgar throughout. The challenge here is retaining both tastefulness and a sense of direction, which we aim to achieve through a gradual shift in perspective. The violence at the start may initially seem almost playful, but as Alex becomes the subject and the events are revealed in their full horror, the audience is forced to reconsider their position, feeling guilty for having participated at the start. Rather than growing towards a specific point of ‘cruelty’, Clockwork is a gradual unfolding of the nature of violence itself. As perspective is key, so is the treatment of the audience. To find out exactly what is in store, be sure to catch one of our shows - click here for more info. The theatre of cruelty has potential to be explored in so many more ways; from taste and scent design to the active casting of the audience, hopefully we’ll see these theories continue to come alive in newer and more imaginative ways.

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