WE WANT YOU TO WATCH – National Theatre

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★★★
National Theatre, Temporary – until 11 July 2015

PORN AND PHYSICALITY

We’re all on the same page here, right? Online pornography is increasingly violent, graphically displaying real, abusive sexual acts devoid of tenderness. Rapist sex is perversely extreme, anatomically damaging and profoundly corrupting to the angry, the lonely, and – most alarmingly – schoolboys confused into thinking it normal. We despise porn-hounds, know perfectly well that the online stuffings are not the innocent ooh-Mr-Window-cleaner, stuff of old. We wish there was less of a sniggery-liberal, Chandler-from-Friends implication that it’s a harmless boy’s treat. We know how feeds a wider culture of objectifying young women: not least if we fondly remember Nick Payne and Carrie Cracknell’s brilliant BLURRED LINES, an earlier 75-minuter in this red-plank theatre.

This is a different creature altogether, by Alice Birch with the physical theatre genii of RashDash – Helen Goalen and Abbi Greenland, who also star . It pitches itself somewhere between Bouffon clown-theatre and expressive dance, with dashes of crypto- Beckettian dialogue jerking – aptly like porn itself – with interruptions and crossplay. There’s even a tramp Estragon-ing through at the end. At its centre are Goalen and Greeland, neatly bobbed, henna and raven-black respectively: they appear first as jeering police interrogators accusing a young man of a graphically described, disgusting murder because he watches such things online. (Actually, it is kind of awkward to see white police, however symbolic and female, accusing a black man they have just beaten up and providing no evidence beyond his computer record). He gets the first of a few striking counter-speeches, asserting that “Millions of people watch violent porn…and then do a fun run for cancer research and give up their seat on a bus and cry at Tristan and Isolde and kiss their children and make love to their wives”.

The pair then reappear – the design , lined with tins labelled SEX and rejoicing in blackouts, roaring sound, pace and razzmatazz, is engaging (Caroline Steinbeis directs) . This time they are naive persuaders trying to get the Queen (Helena Lymbery in crude parody, crown and all) to sign a law banning all porn. They explain it to her – in wild violent dance moves, Greenland hurling Goalen to the floor and abusing her – whereon HM says that sex isn’t like that, and does a wild dance of her own expressing its joyfulness. This is not going to go down well in some quarters, not at all. And to be honest, I am not sure that the shock-value and the giggles from the audience were entirely worth it. The Queen’s too easy a symbol, a powerless one at that, and the porn industry too global for any such fantasy to bite.

A more effective sequence is also the least contrived, as the pair look down from high above at a small boy, predicting how from the first naughty picture of fellatio on a schoolfriend’s phone he will go on to wreck his own real loves and beget a new generation to suffer the same fate. That works. But the heroines don’t stay still for long (blimey, these girls are gymnastically astonishing) as an orange-suited woman with a megaphone bullies them into crazed dance for demanding that she “stop the Internet” .

Flashes of argument, never carried through, tempt you towards thought; every time though it dissolves into mere spectacle, brilliantly executed but travelling nowhere. The girls’ cry of “end it , and begin again” only underlines the impossibility of doing just that. “We should have built something” they say. But they didn’t, not really, for all the bravura . We’re back round the circle to the bit we all agree about. I hope it starts arguments about porn in society. But they’re unlikely to be new ones.

box office 020 7452 3000 to 11 july

rating three

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Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.
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Libby Purves on RssLibby Purves on Twitter
Libby Purves
Libby Purves was theatre critic for The Times from 2010 to 2013. Determined to continue her theatre commentary after losing that job, she set up her own site www.theatrecat.com in October 2013. She personally reviews all major London openings, usually with on-the-night publication, and also gives voice to a new generation of critics with occasional guest 'theatrekittens'. In addition to her theatre writing and myriad other credits, Libby has been a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s Midweek for over 30 years. She is also the author of a dozen novels, and numerous non-fiction titles. In 1999, Libby was appointed an OBE for services to journalism.

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