I recently came across this long-form piece on Internal written as a Facebook note by academic, dramaturg, critic and Stage blogger Duška Radosavljević. Since she hasn’t got a blog of her own, she’s kindly said I can host it here. I should point out that her views are entirely her own. This doesn’t constitute an endorsement per se, so much as a growing interest in the critical work that is growing up around the piece and a desire to see the conversation continue.
OK, I’ve made my mind up about it. It’s a week since I ‘did’ Internal. (It doesn’t seem appropriate to say ‘saw’ or ‘attended’ – the way one would say about any other theatre piece). In that time I have endlessly discussed it – first with my fellow ‘attendees’/ audience-members; then with my colleagues from the Stage, then again with my fellow audience-members when we bumped into each other in a different show’s queue, then with other friends who have done it, with Stage colleagues as part of the awards adjudication, and even eventually with some company-members too. I have heard many different reactions to it – vaguely divided into ‘loved it’, ‘hated it’, ‘intrigued by it’ and ‘afraid of it’ (by those who chose not to do it). I have also seen one of my friends receive a cold shoulder as he over-enthusiastically ran up to his Internal partner when he saw her on the street. But most interestingly, just as I thought I’d left it behind the moment I left Edinburgh, I continue to witness my own and other people’s struggles with this particular piece of theatre.
Theatre critics, who continue to write about the piece in their blogs and personal pages, seem particularly plagued by the piece’s inherent challenge to their professional objectivity. How do you maintain the critical distance required by your job in relation to someone who is flirting with you, showing you naked pictures of themselves or even worse just touching you seductively without saying a word? The natural – and possibly quite unfortunate – outcome of that effort seems to be a kind of cynicism. In an attempt to keep hold of our critical faculties and stay on duty, we tend to perhaps over-emphasise the fact that this is a construct, an illusion, a piece of theatre which despite seeming as though it features a great deal of ‘reality’ cannot ultimately be trusted. We think about it in line with other one-to-one or immersive pieces of theatre proliferating this year (as in Lyn Gardner’s write-up of the show) and quite a few older colleagues are dismissing even the idea of it on the grounds of ‘been there, done that’ in the 1970s.
My question is: why are we so afraid of this piece of theatre? In everything that I have read about it – and I have read almost everything I could find on the internet – most reviews seem to be – quite rightly – reflecting on the ‘experience’ of the show, raising issues of ethical dubiousness against it, but rarely getting to the point of reflecting on the content of the piece. This surprises me.
Before I get to my own interpretation of the content I would like to offer a few thoughts about the form too. Yes, it is true that even though its one-to-one format appears innovative, there is nothing new about this show. However, this is not solely because it is reminiscent on the 1970s avant-garde. No, this is a typical three-act Aristotelian piece of theatre which even features the Hegelian dialectical structure of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. What gives it a contemporary edge is the emphasis – potentially inspired by post-colonialist studies – on the ‘experiential’ and the ‘kinaesthetic’ rather than the verbal means of communication. Yes, it does unsettle a Western viewer – particularly a critic whose main means of expression is verbal – to just be asked to stare into somebody’s eyes or submit oneself to an entirely tactile communication and consider this to be a meaningful theatre event. But then again, many a Western theatre practitioner would say that theatre has everything to do with the instinctive and the intuitive and less so with the solely verbal. (This potentially represents a particular challenge in an Anglophone context.)
However, what about the perceived manipulation involved in the seduction ritual that the audience-member is subjected to by the performer within the ambiguous terms of a theatre situation? Everything seems real (including the said seduction, with the twist being here that the audience members are being seduced individually and directly), yet everything is illusory by virtue of being a theatre event. The rules are not re-defined for this particular situation, so we assume that we are expected to respond as we usually do in theatre in order to obtain pleasure from the event – i.e. ‘suspend our disbelief’, go with the flow and suspend judgment until afterwards. Yet, how does one go with the flow in an event such as this one which might well end up in a transgression of physical boundaries (and like Andrew Haydon has suggested – in the question of real/illusory romantic in/fidelity if the audience member happens to be attached). The ambiguity is enhanced by the fact that even after we leave the theatre space – not only do we continue thinking about it and discussing it – we also receive a letter from our date at our home address some days later. Should we reply to it? Or should we expect once again to be shown that the situation should not be trusted (as we are shown in what I would call Act 2 of the piece).
Yes, the piece definitely raises ethical questions (as Bill McEvoy’s blog piece points out), but I would not like to dismiss it on those grounds. In fact my question would be, how is this experience any less ethical than any real life romantic interaction which ends badly or where one party is let down by the other? Of course the question of theatre and ethics is huge, and there is definitely a flip side to the disruption of boundaries in a theatre event (as illustrated very clearly by last year’s production The F*ct*ry by B*d*c Theatre where audience was cast into Holocaust victims on their way to a gas chamber, and the company members infamously took their work outside of the theatre by continuing to intimidate two critics who refused to participate in the ‘script)’. It is hard to claim this with any certainty, but it seems to me that the Belgian company Ontroerend Goed’s intentions were a bit more noble than those of B*d*c theatre (even though they too, according to Nick Awde's review, turn the audience into 'actors' - albeit actors without a script). Conversely and interestingly, another Stage reviewer, Natasha Tripney has in her blog likened her experience to that between a shop assistant and an overly needy customer.
On one occasion of an informal chat about Internal on the streets of Edinburgh, Ian Shuttleworth has said that ‘you get from it what you put in’. I agree with this entirely. Even in the ‘treacherous’ Act 2 of the piece – even though I felt uncomfortable with the situation - I never felt judged by my partner; all I got back was exactly (‘verbatim’) what I’d put in!
So, a word about the content. What Internal offers us in 25 minutes is a take on contemporary relationships. What starts off as a quick (perhaps even a speed-dating generated) relationship ends up in a group therapy session. We don’t know how to deal with each other any more or how to gain real and meaningful intimacy capable of helping us resolve our own problems between ourselves. Far too often, (in the culture which fetishises reality TV and celebrity lifestyle) our dirty laundry gets aired in public. I have said it before and I’ll say it again – I blame my older bra-burning sisters, mothers, aunts from the 1970s who perhaps did win sexual freedoms for themselves but whose heritage to me is an expectation from men that a one-night-stand is a fair deal. This kind of deal could only be fair for a man! The loss of mating dances, courtship and pre-matrimonial rituals however restrictive, sexist and backward they might have seemed (think dowry etc), is a loss for women only. Apparent sexual equality is a loss for women only – I do want to see the man in my life dress up for me, take me out, open doors for me and pour me a drink (even if it can only happen in theatre nowadays)!
So the reason I loved Internal, despite everything, is because it was an incisive but optimistic social comment, ending with a romantic dance and a handwritten letter. (I genuinely thought my date was asking me for an email address and found it very refreshing that he meant otherwise). There is hope for us if we are all able to look into ourselves and see where our own romantic boundaries, desires, expectations and needs are, and Internal provokes us to do exactly that. As a result of the experience, I will know a bit better what my strengths and weaknesses are. And another reason I loved Internal is because it was definitely the most romantic experience – however illusory – I have had in years. Now, that’s what is truly alarming!