Saturday 18 July 2015

The Privileged – Flare at Contact, Manchester

[seen 15/07/15]

[SPOILER WARNING: If you’re going to see Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged you’re probably better off going and interacting with the piece with no prior knowledge. HOWEVER, as it’s only playing to audiences of 40 – and with only two sold-out shows left – you might be curious to read an account of what happens in the piece, or rather, specifically, what happened in Wednesday’s show.]

[For my previous work on polar bears, see here]

The set-up for The Privileged is as follows: 40 audience members enter Contact’s upstairs studio space. There are forty chairs set out in a kind of rectangular enclosure. There are also ten envelopes numbered one to ten set out on some of the chairs. In the middle of the enclosure there is a man in a “polar bear” costume. The floor is littered with pieces of fried chicken.

When the show “starts”, nothing happens. Then someone thinks to open the first envelope, and reads the instructions it contains out loud. We are introduced to “Cuddles, the polar bear,” and our position as an audience – as visitors at a zoo that allows us to meet the creature and interact with it – is established. The second sheet tells us polar bear “facts”. The third sheet gives us instructions on how to start interacting with the bear.

[Full disclosure, I read Meg Vaughan’s superlative choose-your-own-review online ages ago, so I knew where the piece was going.]

Knowing something of where the piece was headed, I hung back, not wanting to implicate myself too much in what would transpire. The *problem* of the piece, you see, is that it plays very deliberately with racism, racist tropes, and with the idea of privilege. Seen in that light from the start, even the amusing games we’re asked to play with the bear are horribly loaded. Descriptions of the bear as lazy and pretty much unable to even feed itself should have us squirming in our seats. But, on the other hand, it’s just a bloke in an amusing polar bear costume, right? And Harewood’s “polar bear acting” is, for what it’s worth, completely charming, disarming, playful and funny. Lots of the audience are all “awwww” when he flops into someone’s lap who’s giving his polar bear suit a good stoke.

The instructions on the sheets get darker, until we’re asked to nominate three audience members to take off the bear’s costume. That two of the volunteers – we were already perhaps flunking the piece as an audience by not nominating, but allowing self-selection – were black women perhaps slightly diffused the next visual section of the bear chasing around the room unwilling to have its skin removed. First the feet, then the white-fur onesie, then the head.

This done, Harewood stands naked in the middle of the room – stands, now; no polar bear acting here, his knees bleeding from having spent the last half hour shuffling round and round for our entertainment. And the instruction sheet tells us to order him to eat his fried chicken snacks.

And this is where the version I saw got interesting: a white American man flatly refused to go along with it. Citing his whiteness and American-ness as the precise reasons why not. On one level, this is the danger of the extremely theatre/performance-literate audience – which is obviously a privilege in itself. What followed, proves that the piece itself doesn’t get broken by people suddenly refusing the instructions. The situation is still the situation. The way that the audience is situated by the title as *the privileged* (at least, that’s how I read it), pretty much ensures that whatever we do can be interpreted through that – not inaccurate – prism.

The make-up of the audience was interesting to, though. There were a lot of international performers and a diverse selection of locals, many members or graduates of Contact’s own youth programmes. The room was reassuringly diverse in terms of age, race and nationality. Part of me did wonder what it would have been like to see this piece maybe through a theatre like the Barbican or Almeida – off-site, expensive tickets, maybe at the May Fair Hotel like the Almeida did with The Fever, or in a private flat like some shows in Edinburgh, with what might be an all-white, all-wealthy, all-middle/upper-class audience.

What was fascinating in yesterday’s performance, when the piece turned from being a matter of the spectators doing what they were told to being the focus of the piece – where our discussion *became* the content – was the extent to which it could still be viewed as a brilliant exploration of privilege, or, perhaps more accurately, of entitlement. Of who felt entitled to challenge the fact that we had to do what we were being told. Of who felt at home with the idea that *we* were allowed to do what we wanted. Of who, in effect, felt so privileged that they could demand their right not to be implicated as a racist by a black performer whose piece explores that precise relationship. What I found most chilling was the small section of the audience who, thanks to the authority of the relationship of the stage (or building, or audience contract), were still most keen to “only follow orders”.

Of course, the relationship between interactive performance and audience is a tricky one. The desire to “only follow orders” doesn’t make someone a would-be guard at Auschwitz in this context, but instead means the audience member is someone who wants to allow the performer to show us what they designed to the piece to do.

But, if what the performer wanted to make us do was bully and humiliate them, the desire to short-circuit the piece is, initially, laudable. What was fascinating, was that it gave the show an even more provocative meaning: that the greatest privilege of all is to refuse to participate in structural racism (hardly an option open to those against whom it is directed), and, by doing so, fail to fully confront the reality of it.


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