Friday 18 May 2012

Three Kingdoms and Misogyny

“There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as "moral indignation", which permits envy and hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue”  
Erich Fromm 


 People who I like and respect have raised the question, so it feels like it is worth looking at in detail. Although rather than being a conversation about “misogyny”, it is actually a conversation about how we watch theatre.

A couple of initial points: using the word “misogynist” pretty much slams the brakes on a nuanced discussion. There's no “moderately misogynist”, “quite misogynist”, or “perhaps a bit misogynist?”. It is one of the most black and white words imaginable.

A Misogynist is “a man who hates women or believes that men are much better than women

It's a word that brooks no discussion. Using it about Three Kingdoms makes it feel like there's suddenly no room left to attempt a “reading” of the production, and talking about anything else means that you hate women.

Maddy Costa, in her Guardian blog yesterday underlines this point:

“it all the more alarming that the one thing that most online writers gloss over is the problematic representation of women (Catherine Love at Love Theatre is the notable exception)”

It is a sentence with which I take some issue. For a start, I didn't gloss over it, I explicitly said that I wasn't sure that the production had fully cleared the hurdle of how to portray subjugated women. Nor, for the record, did Daniel B Yates “gloss over” it.  The problem with the above quote is that it takes Maddy's opinion that the “representation of women” is “problematic” as a fact. It's not a discussion point, it's already a fact, and one which it's “alarming” that other writers “gloss over”. That doesn't feel like the most productive way to instigate a discussion. There is definitely a discussion about the portrayal of women in Three Kingdoms to be had. But it's a discussion about how we think plays work.

Mentioning it opens up the possibility of a discussion. Deeming the play “misogynist” immediately closes that discussion again and makes anyone who wants to discuss it further look like an apologist for the unquestionable woman-hating which the play apparently definitely enacts.

Consider the next paragraph [which I've split up a bit]:

“The violence against women in the language is appalling,”

Yes. Although I'd contend, a) it is *some characters'* language which is appalling, b) that that's pretty much inevitable in a play about cynical people-traffickers, c) it's a bit like complaining when a play about Nazis contains some people saying anti-Semitic things, d) what is the alternative? A play about sex-trafficking that *doesn't* make us uncomfortable?

“So is the meticulousness with which the death of a prostitute is detailed”

Same again, really. It is powerful and horrible. It's meant to be powerful and horrible. Assuming that we want a theatre that can admit that there are horrible things in the world, then I don't see any way around this. I would contend that there's no more sadism or relish on Simon's part than there ever was in the work of Sarah Kane. Nor did the scene strike me as gratuitous – the matter-of-factness of Peeter Koepell, the home office pathologist, is a well-worn trope of the detective genre that Simon is exploding here.

“the silence of the women on stage – who are spat at, transfigured as deer (the powerless prey of hungry wolves), or reduced to blankly mopping the floor [is also appalling]. Yet the general consensus is that the end justifies the means: that the modern world is excoriated through representation.”

Actually, my perspective isn't that the “end justifies the means” but that these “means” *work*.; these “means” *mean*. It's perhaps also worth noting in passing that six of the seven people who hold mops during the play are male performers and that the deer heads were “conceived and designed by Ene-Liis Semper” (Simon Stephens). But maybe, on the other hand, that is a) irrelevant and b) part of the separate problem of the *under-representation* of women on stage.

Then we get to the even more difficult bit:

“I appreciate where this is coming from: almost nothing about the play's depiction of women worried me while watching. Afterwards, though, one question resounded in my head: why are women the commodity here and not, for example, drugs or guns?”

Well, the simple answer to that is that drugs and guns don't have feelings and no one really cares about how they're treated. They're not a human story. To be about drugs or guns, the play would have to be about the people moving them around. The trafficking of people is a uniquely disgusting crime. At the same time, yes, this is the crime that Simon has chosen to explore.

Three Kingdoms offers no explanation”

Aside from what I've said above, I'd also disagree with this. The subject seems woven into not only the fabric of every line of the play and production, but moreover, that it's the play's thesis (which makes it sound much more lofty than the play ever is) that this activity is indicative of a much wider problem in capitalism.

“which makes it look dangerously like a play that uses women to tell a story set among men who use women to make themselves rich.”

Given that this is *A Subject* (something that perhaps on one level we *should* think about – in the tradition of British theatre that Worries About Issues and on another level, *can* serve as a metaphor for much wider issues), I'm at a bit of a loss what anyone would rather. Edinburgh for the past three or four years has served up all sorts of pieces offering the female perspective, sometimes based on interviews, sometimes more speculative, in which various actresses have pretended to be trafficked sex-workers and detailed their appalling experiences. This has often struck me as sometimes potentially and sometimes actually crass. I mean, what are we being invited to look at there? Is that better?

If we're going to accept that this issue is so gendered that writers, directors, whoever, can only represent their own sex's part in the sex-trade, then isn't it fair enough that Simon (who, let's not forget, is no slouch when it comes to also writing strong women's parts – Wastwater, Pornography, Harper Regan, etc.) has, in this instance, written a play about the male side of the equation? If a writer is troubled by an issue, then isn't is fair enough that they unpack it in the way that they can? Some men in the world do treat women like this, and it isn't solely a woman's prerogative to write a play deploring that fact.

I'm not being at all flippant when I say that the piece of theatre with which I most closely identified Three Kingdoms in terms of content was actually Chris Goode's Infinite Lives, another narrative of male loneliness, alienation, the internet, pornography, exploitation and global capitalism. (although, granted, I don't think there's a single woman even mentioned in Infinite Lives) (and, as we'll later see, Chris and I have slightly different views re: content, insofar as I do still occasionally find the contents of something formally reactionary interesting and Chris tends to think – to paint a very broad picture of his position – that if the form is reactionary then the content is basically a bit stuffed).

“By not tackling this issue in real depth, the online writers risk seeming as entrenched in their approbation of Three Kingdoms as the newspaper critics in their wariness and/or hostility.”

Whereas it now feels like this one aspect of the production has become the only aspect that is a valid point of discussion. No one has condemned anyone for not looking hard enough at the representations of the various nationalities involved in the play in their review, or for not thinking deeply enough about the European (and beyond) history involved, or for not fully unpacking the ways that slavery relates to the different countries – from Britain's slave-owning Empire, through the forced-labour of the Third Reich to the more-or-less slave/cannon-fodder status of the Baltic states in the USSR/Afghanistan war.

No. None of the online reviews really managed to fully unpack any aspect of Three Kingdoms. But then I reckon you could write a book on this production of Three Kingdoms and still not have covered everything. None of which is to say that I think it's flawless, FTR; just that it opens a hell of a lot of doors, and the production emphasises this, and behind those doors are yet more doors. And in that respect, it is one of the most exciting fully staged productions I've seen all year – and the fact that it's playing in a theatre big enough and for just about long enough to have been seen by about half the people who think hardest about theatre that I know is also exciting.

“This matters, because theatre criticism has a role above and beyond the star rating that tells potential audiences whether or not to purchase a ticket.”

Yes. I agree and I have made a similar point many times. On the other hand, the reviews, or critiques, or discussions do have to *get* written to be posted online. The possibility of going on forever doesn't mean that one doesn't get tired, or feel the need to post a first salvo, a work-in-progress, or some initial ideas. In part, this is both an initial failure of presentation on the part of some online critics, but also of imagination on Maddy's part, for assuming that there won't be more at some point. For assuming that online the review is the end of the conversation like it tended to be in print.

However, Maddy also notes:

Three Kingdoms plays in London for just two and a half weeks, yet it has the potential to affect British theatre far beyond that.”

For that to happen, *people* (a vital element of British Theatre) do have to go and see it. An MA Thesis-length discussion of whether or not the production is “misogynist” isn't necessarily going to get many people through the doors. There is an argument that these first shots *needed* to reflect the sheer excitement of watching the thing (best example so far here, btw)

I also resent the suggestion that my position is “entrenched”. Granted, some people are liable to snort at that, given that I've liked a lot of Simon's previous work a hell of a lot and loved 50% of the other (two) shows I've seen directed by Sebastian Nübling (wasn't such a huge fan of Alpsegen, although that could be down to several factors outwith the direction, including me *really* not getting it – again several factors, not least it being in un-surtitled German and being a pastiche/satire about a particular regional dialect within German), but I don't think liking something and saying as much is “entrenchment” any more than not liking it and saying so is.

As a general note about the perceived “misogyny” in the piece, I should confess at this juncture that I find the assumption that the piece was made solely by two named men (invariably Stephens and Nübling), and that neither the (female, FTR) designer nor the play's two female actors have any actual agency whatsoever incredibly problematic.

As if, because they are playing silent “victims” on stage (in the case of the actresses), they've also got no voice in the rehearsal room; that they don't have strong feelings about the value of the production. It's probably worth noting that both women are part of the respective ensembles of Munich Kammerspiele and Teatr NO99. They have much stronger relationships with the other members of the cast from their country than the English actors necessarily have (although Simon does mention in the Lyric Hammersmith trailer that Ferdy and Nicholas are friends in real life).

 I don't know about the precise conditions under which they make work in Munich or Tallinn, but I do know that NO99 are very much an ensemble company like, say, early Theatre de Complicité, and that job security for actors in Germany is such that I think I'm right in saying that it even has provision for maternity leave. I also know that both female actors and the designer are passionate advocates of the show. Which may or may not count for anything. But I find it significant. Although, of course, other people are welcome to disagree with them for being proud of the work they've made, and to assert that it is “misogynist”.


I'd also like to have a stab at responding to the comment/s left by Chris Goode under my review of Three Kingdoms, and perhaps some of the stuff he's said since on the comment thread under Maddy's piece...

First off, I think Chris and I sometimes (often?) watch theatre in different ways, and sometimes *want* different things out of it. Which I think means I'll be slightly less-than-useful at really getting to grips with his points. By way of example, I shall first quote from his initial comment on Maddy's Guardian blog:

Three Kingdoms creates a stage world in which acts of physical violence are simulated (a kick that doesn't connect with a body, etc.), and in which sexual acts are simulated (dildos and squirty cream). My guess is it thinks it's simulating misogyny in the same register. I don't think it can. I think it creates a misogynistic situation, for real. It might, as Daniel B. Yates's brilliantly executed review suggests, "make us complicit with the worst"; but it seems to want its playfulness to exempt it from its own complicity. But it does not show us misogyny, it makes things happen for real which are blatantly, energetically and exuberantly misogynistic.”


“I won't bang on about this here but I do suspect this question -- about the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things -- will, in various forms no doubt, be the defining one in British theatre over the next few years. Because theatre is always shaped by successive versions of this same basic question: essentially, how does theatre relate, or want to relate, to the world around it?”

My first thought is about “representation” and about what I think is a difference between first the socio-political/intellectual and then the theatrical cultures of Germany and Britain:

I've been thinking about Chris's comment on my blog since he made it and trying to work out why I arrived at such different conclusions to me.

What I really wanted to do was point to what I think is a difference between the way that elements signify on stage between Britain and Germany. And I started wondering if this point concerning “representation” about which I'd worried was the logical conclusion of Britain's love-affair with mimesis: the point where our (over-)long tradition of naturalism meets contemporary multicultural society and demands that everything is fair and that Art is no excuse for anything.

Or, put much more simply, in Germany they think nothing of having a white woman play Othello. In Britain, this casting would just seem infinitely more problematic. The main reason that it would be more problematic here is that Britain just has *a lot* more black actors (of both sexes/genders) than Germany (almost a case of “i.e. *any at all*” ). It is also frequently noted that there are “very few parts for black actors”. As such, while theatre-in-Britain has areas where it infrequently allows for colour-blind casting (mostly Shakespeare), Othello is pretty much ring-fenced for black actors. A similar complaint is made about the availability of “parts for women” in Britain, while in Germany, I'm not sure the same complaints are made. Perhaps they are. Perhaps I still only have a very narrow understanding of German theatre, informed largely by quite a progressive bunch of people who might have chosen to just ignore practices of which they didn't approve in Germany's mainstream theatre.

Given the way that British theatre – for the most part, at least – seems to operate: casting “to-type”, “as-written” etc. (and we've been though this before, several times), I think, somehow, the net result is that we in Britain can still think of the people on stage as necessarily still owning certain properties/identities/constructs (race, ethnicity, age, sex/gender, disability) that they are also understood to own in life.

Sometimes a production asks us to pretend we don't identify them with these properties, and sometimes a production hinges on its “authenticity” and we are asked to specifically identify performers with foregrounded properties. There are pretty vexed arguments in favour of and against both positions.

[in Three Kingdoms, for example, is Ignatius's wife Caroline *actually* “European” - as opposed to British – or is that the actress playing her? And is Ignatius actually the same age as Nicholas Tennant or is he closer to the age of his wife in the “world of the play”? I've no idea how old Nicholas Tennant is, but I reckon his character could be anything from 35 upwards... Is it relevant what age Simon had in his head when he was imagining the character? Did he even have such a thing in mind? Was Simon anticipating Sebastian cutting the character altogether and replacing it with a mechanical penguin, causing him to not worry too much about particular human traits? etc.]

In Germany, that relationship – at least as it was explained to to me by a particular couple of German directors – is conceived differently (they both also swore blind to me, in Café Moskau on Karl-Marx-Allee, that after Hans Johst's Schlageter all naturalism was a fascist catastrophe).

I can't argue that there aren't fewer female characters on the stage, but I can offer some other thoughts:

Firstly, that I don't believe that there should necessarily be an equal division of parts between men and women in a play, or that there should necessarily be equal employment of male and female performers.

Secondly, the one time Vera, the murdered trafficked Estonian, appears on stage (at least as I read it), she is played by a man. This strikes me as one way in which the play significantly differs from a production designed and directed by misogynists. Although, as I noted in my original review, and as has been echoed more eloquently elsewhere since, I did wonder about the cross-gender playing only going in one direction.

Thirdly, in the orgy/porn-shoot scene, given that costume is a primary signifier of gender elsewhere, do we even know what gender those naked actors are meant to be? Is the performer wearing nothing but PVC pants and a strap-on, actually *meant* to *be* a man or a woman? And, following that scene, when performer Mirtel Pohla washes herself off, and then dons a blonde wig, blue dress and prosthetic cock/strap-on, well... I dunno. It could be read in all sorts of ways, surely?

Elsewhere, Michael Billington's point (in the comments section of his own review) that he “felt there was something brutally voyeuristic about one particular scene, in the Estonian section, where a young girl is taunted and abused by a group of capitalist traffickers. That struck me as a product of Nubling's staging rather than the writing.” strikes me as curious.

Why is *this* bit *too much*? By this point we have been *told* that a woman has had her head sawed off (no attempt made to show this, significantly); we have watched the two detectives recoiling in horror watching this decapitation on a mobile phone (again, all we see is their faces and the sound of tinny screaming); we have seen a female character terrified into silence by her pimp boyfriend; we have seen dance/movement sequences in which the relentlessness of sex-trafficking has been suggested by a near-ballet suggestive of relentless misery and the terrifying inexorability of people-trafficking. And yet it's *this* scene that's too much?

Further, that this accusation comes from a critic who defended the stoning of the baby in Saved? Who eventually came to understand the rape and cannibalism of Blasted as metaphor? Yes, the scene is unpleasant, but I don't think it's meant to be anything but. But the fact of there being a scene in which totally unsympathetic characters behave incredibly unpleasantly doesn't, for me, make the play something that manufactures its own misogyny any more than people pretending to be concentration camp guards in – to give a couple of examples of plays I've seen – Pip Simmons's An Die Musik or Arthur Miller's Playing For Time manufacture anti-Semitism or fascism (although that piece about An Die Musik is worth a read since it concerns a revival of a then-25-years-old/now-37 bit of radical theatre which certainly tried to blur the lines to provoke its audience...).

As such, I have questions about whether *showing* something happening, when it's portrayed by actors, is the same thing as essentially *making that thing happen*. I'd say there was a world of difference between actually punching someone in the face and two performers being complicit with one another in pretending it. I think that's almost the exact opposite.

To return to Chris's earlier point again: “I do suspect this question -- about the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things -- will, in various forms no doubt, be the defining one in British theatre over the next few years.” I've been trying to work out what it was that disturbed me about that that sentence, and I think it's the fact that Chris seems to have removed the audience from the equation entirely and seems now to be saying that audiences play no part in how meaning is created. It feels here like the person who decides what a theatre has made (or shown) is decided by Chris and he's decided it's *made* some misogyny, and now, whatever anyone else thought, is wrong. Which isn't how I think theatre works.
My second thought is about “intent”:

Chris asks: “If Three Kingdoms had been made by out-and-out misogynists, in what ways would it look or feel any different?”

I would first ask some different questions: “Would it have looked different if it had been staged by Gisele Vienne?” and “Would this make a difference?”

For those of you reading this who don't know, Vienne is one of my favourite directors (my reviews of her shows I Apologize and This is How You Will Disappear). I Apologize features something like twenty startlingly life-like, life-sized models of 13-year-old school girls and much of the action of the piece involves their choreographed torture and murder, while the soundtrack includes author Dennis Cooper reading out pieces he's written that revolve around sexual abuse of both boys and girls. This is How You Will Disappear, while slightly more illusive, it is also revolves around the suggestion of possible rapes and murders. No one – to the best of my knowledge – has ever accused either piece, or Vienne as a director/maker of “misogyny” – although I'm not sure I could answer if I was asked how, if those pieces “had been made by out-and-out misogynists, in what ways would it look or feel any different?” There is, if anything, less of a clear tone of condemnation in either. They are Art. And they are Abstract. But at the same time, some of the most concrete moments within them are surely those moments identifiable most simply as “violence against women” or “rape”.

I suppose what I'm asking is: if people knew the director was a woman (or if the writer wasn't a heterosexual man), would they be asking the same question? Which is more or less precisely the same question as “how would this differ if made by misogynists?” backwards. But the implication seems to be that Simon and Sebastian possibly could be by dint of the simple fact of their being men.

Something else I wonder about: if a work of art is A Work of Art, do we do it a disservice by kind of gendering it according to quite old-fashioned ideas about from whence its *authority* springs? (i.e. not least by crediting Stephens and Nübling with *all* the power in a rehearsal room in which we were not present). Are we not also dis-empowering ourselves as an audience who might not being making what we see into a “misogynistic situation, for real” but into a depiction of that situation which we fully understand to be, when it's presented in the space in front of us on a stage, *made up* (yes, it's *about* something real, but it's not the real thing itself).

Following on from this, my next question is: “Since the piece is designed by the internationally renowned (female) Estonian artist Ene-Liis Semper – since all the costumes, animal heads and all – are her conception, does this [similarly to the above question] mitigate our perception of the production as a whole?”

I'd also like to have a stab at answering how it would be different if it had been made by misogynists: -

I'm assuming we're thinking here of misogynists who also want to fuck women, as well as hating them, rather than people who simply have no interest in them at all. In this case, in the first instance, we'd have seen a good deal more violence against the women. Nübling's direction – which, let's be honest, could have inserted any scene it liked, including some deconstructed version of the head being sawed off or any amount of simulated rape – includes very few examples of violence against either gender.

I also think, ironically, there would have been *more* women on stage, and in far fewer clothes. After all, for all its implied sexualisation, Three Kindoms doesn't actually contain any full female nudity, while it does contain a fully naked man – viewable from pretty much every angle. I reckon I can probably imagine whether or not it would appeal to yer actual misogynist (or at least a reader of Zoo or Nuts, if there's a difference): “one pair of tits, a naked bloke, and a bloke in a dress *pretending* to be a girl? And one of the girls has got an animal head on? And it's all a critique of capitalism anyway? You're asking me to have a wank about that? Are you fucking kidding?” is my guess.

As part of my background reading for this article, I went back to Chris's (excellent. If you've not read it, read it) lecture Some of the Futures, to remind myself about some of the things he said about “Theatre”. What I was looking for wasn't there, though. It turned out to be here. What it is, is a short couple of paragraphs from July 2010 where Chris is being cross about Marina Abramovic's “standard-issue live art rejection of theatre”. I wanted to see what his objections were, contra to her suggestion that: “theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real”.

Interestingly, that piece also takes us right back to the Lyric Hammersmith and Chris watching Improbable's Lifegame. Chris describes it as crossness: “at everyone who's ever spun the idiotic line about the supposed 'passivity' of the theatre audience, as if that condition were a structurally embedded and insoluble predicament”. And, while I, a) didn't see the Lifegame, and, b) completely realise that it and Three Kingdoms must occupy two pretty different ends of some theatrical spectrum or other, I think the affirmation of trust in an active audience that Chris found at Lifegame is very much of a part with what I experienced in 3K. Obviously, in the light of several people disagreeing about the outcome, we can conclude that our reactions are obviously personal. On the other hand, I think it pretty much rules out the possibility of a definitive judgement about what Three Kingdoms *makes* on stage.

Going back to the accusation of misogyny: on this level, it reminds me a bit of the people you sometimes find who are prepared to argue until they're blue in the face that Laibach are Nazis. It also seems to disallow a whole tactic that has been identified by people much cleverer than me as being an actual and unimpeachable Leftist Win.

At a much more basic, simple level, I do also worry about the implications for theatre if some of the ways that these allegations have been made were taken to their logical conclusions. I'm not now thinking of Chris, or anyone else in particular, but just wondering aloud what the alternatives might turn out to be.

One would seem to be having the exact same piece, but making sure both the writer and director were women, so that everyone could feel more reassured that this wasn't a product of “what they really thought about women”. Another possibility might be including some “strong female characters” or “better parts for women” into the piece – although, given things like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which I think is variously argued to be both totally feminist and utterly misogynist (I tend to agree with the latter camp in that case – and it might make an excellent example of what 3K would look like if it was made by misogynists).

Finally, I'd like to flag up the fact that I'm not trying to deny that anyone's discomfort or claim that any perspective is any the less valid than my total lack of the same reaction. I can't argue with how a thing made some people feel, But by the same token, I don't think they can any more necessarily tell me that I'm wrong (or a worse person) for having not felt the things they felt.

And, obviously, this is where it all gets a lot more difficult and even more subjective. I think it probably is possible to argue with cast-iron watertight cases, on any level at all that you care to choose, that Three Kingdoms both is and isn't utterly and not-at-all misogynist. It ultimately boils down to a question of one's premises and one's unshakeable belief in those premises.

The place where a conversation happens is when all parties put aside their unshakeable faiths out of interest in what actual thoughts or solutions other people might think.

Something I find interesting about this whole debate and the quarters from which it has sprung is the apparent similarity of political perspectives of the participants – all broadly speaking quite a long way left-from-centre (and that's the old centre. We all even further left from what's currently supposed to be the centre). In that respect, it also reminds me a bit of the way that The Left lost the Spanish Civil War.

What concerns me about the allegation of misogyny is that it closes down the conversation about how theatre works, which is by no means an open and shut case.

I'm going to leave this here for now, so people stand a chance of being able to get though it. I don't regard this as the end of the conversation or a parting shot. I think wondering about how theatre works and the various ways in which people read it is fascinating. I even concede that strong feelings probably have their place.  I do think, however, that there needs to be a bit more nuance and listening and a bit less of what feels like intractable assertion in this discussion.

[edit: Aha. Am now catching up with the reading on Maddy's Guardian Blog post and I see Chris Goode made many of my points above yesterday afternoon here. He says:

"I have absolutely no reason to doubt (or, indeed, any reason to be sure) that the women involved in the production -- who include the designer, a dramaturg and the stage management team as well as the two women actors -- were fully engaged in collaborating fully and equitably in the process and that they would endorse the production and speak to the unimpeachable intentions behind the entire project. But the nature of patriarchy is that it's no easier for women to opt out of its tangles and snares and contradictions than it is for men; in some ways, of course, it's harder. We are not all just standing around here in a neutral space making our art. Women actors and creatives are obliged to sell their labour in a context of massive cultural inequality, and their status as collaborators even in the most enlightened process is consequently extremely complex right from the start. That complexity can be alleviated to some extent in the process; or not. This is a production helmed by two powerful and highly respected men and dominated (at least numerically) by male actors and creatives. In that context, creating work which did not replicate the misogyny it may (plausibly) be trying to critique would always require a massive effort of struggling upstream, regardless of the details of the content and the dynamics of the staging.

 In a sense it's plain here that the intentions are good and, in a way, accurate: misogyny is not a women's issue, it's an issue for men, and I can see why Stephens's and Nubling's depictions of a number of intersecting, brutally misogynist male cultures must have felt that it had the capacity for just such a degree of critical accuracy. But what fosters misogyny is patriarchy, and patriarchy's obviously inextricably wound with capitalism, of which we are all the victims (however highly you rate Tesco's, Robert); Three Kingdoms is very obviously concerned with those questions too. This is all really good. The rub, for me, fundamentally, is that they haven't got to grips with how theatre functions in relation to patriarchy -- not only, but not least, in a heavily male-dominated production. Whether, and how, theatre can comment from outside the system it's critiquing, or whether it's ineluctably part of that system: and if it is, how it can make something happen within that system that is resistant to it rather than a further replication of its terms and conditions, and what that might require. All I can say is that I think if Stephens and Nubling are thinking through those questions at all, and if Three Kingdoms is in any way an account of that thinking, then I deeply and forcefully (though not unrespectfully) disagree with their current position." ]


isaac_welton said...

Thanks for thinking so hard in public about this Andrew. I only saw the show last night, and am still processing it. I went on my own, and wished then, and wished now, for someone, and a pint, to go over it with. It's a different discussion I suppose, but isn't there a really peculiar thing about the standard critical position - he or she ordinarily sits alone amongst the collective, and reports back to them from this position. Joe Blogs doesn't get it, but talks with his girlfriend about it in the bar and decides he liked it as they continue talking on the bus.

Part of what I'm wondering about the piece, and why I still can't make up my mind (in a sense of putting the pieces back together), is that, although I've sat in the Lyric, and theatres like it many times over, Three Kingdoms resisted or played with what I thought were the conventions by which I was supposed to watch it. It smelled funny, people talked funny and suddenly moved in ways that policemen don't. It kept moving outside of its own frameworks.

In the absence of a suitably lengthy bus journey I don't know if I think that the show was misogynistic yet (although Hammersmith to Hackney is quite a schlep), but I worry that such a ready label fixes something that refused to keep still. That, ultimately, was maybe what was more problematic about it for me. There was something giddying about its constant shifts, but it was maybe too hard to get a grip for long enough to move with it.

maddy costa said...

forgot to say earlier: remember the night i saw 3Ks i sent you a message saying I really wanted to wrestle with you about it? Truly the wrestling match has begun. I suspect I'm going to get properly knocked out, but hoping to stay in the ring a couple more rounds. Now writing about 3Ks for Deliq, in which I'll at least attempt to at least stumble through some of the above, but in the meantime, a suggestion: the word misogyny hasn't closed down discussion at all. It's made it more passionate and furious, opened up the debate about how we watch that's in this post, made me realise I had assumed Semper was male (what kind of rubbish feminism is that?), and so much more. It's a loaded word and a challenging word, but no one who is using it is throwing it out and running. Wld write more now, but then i'd never get the post written. Ding! back to my corner x

Anonymous said...

To echo Maddy's point above, I absolutely agree that the reason this conversation has been so interesting -- and gruelling; I feel by now completely bludgeoned by this discussion in a way that I totally didn't by the play -- is because the accusation / reading of misogyny makes intensely vital and absolutely crucial the questions that you raise here (and which I hope I've been invoking all along) about how we watch, and how we make in the expectation of being watched. It makes the condition of authorship extremely vexed in a way that I'm certain is positive, even if painful. I don't see conversation being shut down anywhere except in your insistence that it has been. Despite which you have written quite a lot here: and I'm very glad of that.

That point aside, I'm sick of the sound of my own voice on this topic and I'm going to leave it at that for the moment. But thanks very much for the piece.

Paul said...

It will be interesting to see what people think about Belarus Free Theatre's 'Minsk 2011' which I found to be far more shocking in its content.

Lucy Powell said...

briefly, as I am hurtling out the door. The difficulty with 'women' and 'three kingdoms' isn't in the misogyny of the storyline. to me, that's not misogynistic at all. it is the misogyny of the staging. And from where I sat, that was unarguable. If you want to know what women look like who are kicked about and had sex with by men they neither know nor like, watch Kathy Burke's Nil by Mouth. Now, you can argue, 3K wasn't trying to tell me what women look like when they experience those things. it's interests were entirely otherwise. All well and good, I would respond, but do we have to have ONLY women on stage who look like sleek supermodels? in their underwear? slathering themselves with soapy water in a full frontal at the audience? I felt the same way about Jan Fabre's work. It was just so exciting and real and rounded in every way, except that, for every gloriously big bellied, bearded, achingly real middle aged Croatian man he'd get on stage to hammer the hell out of an eighties tune, there'd be another utterly jaw droppingly gorgeous, skinny 20 year old woman in stilettos. It's maddening. And when it isn't, it's boring. You can argue that what the staging of 3K wanted to do was to elicit a complicit erotic thrill in its audience by only presenting women who were so thoroughly desirable. But then, as a straight woman, I cannot experience that disquieting collusion and am excluded from its aesthetic. I'm left wondering why there couldn't have been a woman who wasn't a supermodel in her keks on stage. smoking a fag. running the hotel. being the superintendent policewoman who couldn't go to Estonia because she didn't want to leave her pregnant dog. some indication in the worldview of the play that women exist in other vistas than those of the white bird. ... And exhale. Lucy

Anonymous said...

i actually thought quite a while about whether i'd have preferred it as an all male production. i think i might have

gemma said...

oh not anonymous. me

Nick Ridout said...

If the Fromm refers, instead, to the makers of Three Kingdoms, it becomes more interesting.

What Sarah (elswhere) and Lucy (here) and also, I think Chris (here and elsewhere) lead me to think is that because theatre does not represent a situation but make one in its encounter with people in the audience, the question of misogyny is not about representation as such, but about the relationship the performance makes or does not make with its spectators, and how it encourages them to feel in that relationship.