Wednesday 10 June 2015

Image of an Unknown Young Woman – Gate Theatre, London

[seen 08/06/15]

In terms of timing, the press night of Image of an Unknown Young Woman couldn’t have been more stark. All through Monday social media was ablaze with *that video* of the black female teenager* being violently assaulted by a white policeman in America.

Elinor Cook’s play concerns a video of the titular young woman in a yellow dress (an unexepected call-back to Icke’s Iphigenia on Friday) being shot by an unknown policeman during an anti-government protest. The first scene is set in Socialmedialand, with unknown, unnamed Twittrists carrying on as ppl on Twitter do: compulsively sharing, telling each other off for sharing, telling each other off for not sharing, pulling rank and slyly putting down each others’ ‘authenticity’ and credentials of their ‘clicktivist’ caring. Etc. It’s brilliant precisely because it is so entirely correct in every detail, and every bit as fucking maddening.

In Chris Haydon’s staging/On Fly Davis’s set, the Twitterasts loom out of the audience, divided into traverse along the Gate’s long, narrow, black space, with a raised catwalk/gantry. This is a stark world of metal railings and black-clad figures all around us and mostly above us; bearing down on us.

The next few scenes introduce us to some revolutionaries, the young man who shot the video and his girlfriend, and a wealthy Englishwoman who is sponsoring a young boy in the country where the revolution is taking place. There are occasional additions by the figures denoted as “Chorus” in the text – an address by the leader of the country gripped by protests, for instance – these few situations cycle through a period of, what? A day? A few weeks? Different timescales loop and blend seamlessly so that we’re never concerned with the logic, as much as the horrific wider reality.

This is the horrible brilliance of both script and production; by never pinning down a particular regime to take to task, we in the audience think of all of them: Burma, Uganda, Liberia, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Iran, America (add your own). There are descriptions of political protest, of sudden chance captures on mobile phone (or, previously, film) of the moment which can tip protest into furious revolution, compellingly horrible, the descriptions of state-sanctioned torture, murder and forced confessions to restore the status quo, and perhaps even more troubling, these interspersed scenes of calm where a rich English woman calmly, concernedly hopes that sponsoring a child in this failed state will be helpful...

The staging – often high-engergy shouting and stamping about – conveys angst and violence more than adequately; over and over again your nerves are jangled by the possible horror you’re about to witness, and by the greater horror of the fact that you’re relieved when the paid performers, who are only pretending anyway, just stop doing that and let you relax again. Irrespective of how you feel about Cameron’s Britain, the tension between our privileged lives, the calm streets outside, and the ongoing, ever-present torture and murder going on beyond our shores, is harrowing.

[Perhaps, politically, it is a flaw not to show the comfortable lives of the affluent middle classes in that country untroubled by the brutal regime, and, similarly, to not highlight the lives of those in Britain who do suffer in this way, and without even as much hope of a revolution to emancipate them. But this is more a play about Western impotence in the face of brutality abroad, I think.]

It is a brilliantly framed set of questions though: the facile nature of Twitter coverage, the absolute need for the rest of the world to see what’s going on, what’s going on not actually being a beautiful, photogenic woman being shot at random, but systematic oppression. And then, on to violence. The ever-present, biggest question for “bleeding heart liberals”: where is their privileged pacifism getting the actually oppressed? At the same time, everything we know about recent revolutions ending first in horrific bloodshed, and then with one corrupt regime being replaced by another, often worse, regime. The complacency of this viewpoint. The impossibility of knowing what to do, at the same time as not being able to actually do anything.

Meanwhile, the guy who shot the film – of, who? a girl he was having an affair with at college away from his partner? – his flat’s raided, his girlfriend’s sexually assaulted, they’re taken away to some state torture dungeon, a filmed confession is forced out of him, his girlfriend is raped? Murdered? He’s executed after the confession?

Back in Britain the nice lady who’s been helping out the rich lady shows her the scars from where she was tortured, and raped, back in this failed state. Later she plays her a recording of a man being tortured, murdered? in prison. The rich lady is worried that her money is being used to arm “terrorists”. The nice lady wants to make damn sure she knows what the “terrorists” are fighting. She wants more money for them. And through all this, one woman just wants to find her mum, who went out shopping, and had to go through the protesting. It’s a wretched, wretched situation and the play offers no solutions. How could it? It’s brilliant at confronting us again with the realities, however. And it feels like a timely reminder after all the post-election depression that’s been flying around.

As a production, it’s spare and stylish. Mostly dressed in/painted black, repeated yellow motifs – graffiti, balloons, paper, cloth ribbons – are deployed throughout, along with angry bursts of electro/metal/etc. music. The cast is pretty bloody good, and the casting – effortlessly multi-racial – makes a score of brilliant political points, both off-stage to the British theatre industry (Yes: this is what Britain looks like. Please cast accordingly.) and on stage (Yes: these conditions are probably facing someone of every colour on this stage; have a think about that, please). It’s also a bloody big cast for the Gate (9), which is also exciting. It’s very tempting to say that it’s the sort of show that Haydon’s entire time at the Gate thus far has been heading towards. A pretty much perfect synthesis of his on and off stage political convictions.

More than this, though, is the exciting discovery (discover for me, anyway), of Cook as a writer. In many ways, because of the utilitarian playing style (of which I wholeheartedly approve, this isn’t an attack), the writing doesn’t get *shown off* in quite the same way that a more stately production at, say, the Donmar might. But this is furiously good writing, I think. From the way it captures different rhythms and registers of speech, to its structural poise, it’s a very very elegant bit of work. You’re reminded of both Pinter’s political plays (over and over again of One For The Road with all the official language of sanctioned torture and rape), and somehow Caryl Churchill’s early work – that still-too-rare sense of middle-aged women as active subjects, and somehow, too, that ranginess of outdoors that I associate more with the plays of the late seventies – Howard Barker, Churchill, Brenton, et. al. The ending/s are a bit too coup-y for me to feel able to spoiler, but, again. Boom. Lovely touches.

So, yeah. Bloody good production, bloody good play, bloody good performances, not a lot of bloody fun to watch, let alone think through. But important, though, I think. Worth putting yourself through. As a companion piece to Violence and Son, which the other half of the press saw on Monday night; well, I’d recommend leaving more than 24 hours between the two unless you really enjoy despairing of the world.

* re: “black female teenager” – this originally read “young black woman” – largely to echo the title of the play. After a discussion with a director friend (not white, since you ask), I’ve changed it, because: “Black female bodies have long been sites of trauma, carrying not only the weight of the past, but present stereotypes that dehumanize and sexualize young girls before they even hit puberty. Casebolt did not think he was restraining a helpless teenaged girl, but a "black woman," with all the stereotypes and stigma that includes. This, it seems, was justification enough for her treatment”. I can’t use “girl”, because there’s an equally problematic history there, not least related to feminism. So “black female teenager” it is.

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