Violence & the Abject in theatre.

March 18, 2010

I recently went to see theatredelicatessen’s wonderful revival of Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur at Picton Place, just off Oxford Street. Ridley’s text is thematically dense, exploring, in various levels of detail: the nature of love, drug culture, drugs as violence, the apocalypse, chemical warfare, gang violence, the disintegration of language, transsexual relationships and dysfunctional sexual fantasy. The action is based around two brothers, Darren and Elliot, who make money by throwing ‘parties’ in which the paying customer can indulge their wildest and most depraved sexual fantasies. In this case the party will involve the torture of a ten year old boy with a meat-hook by a Vietnam obsessed banker. This party is offered in exchange for information that will save the brothers and their friends Spinx and the Duchess, from the impending end of humanity… It would be safe to say that Mercury Fur is a bit of a head-f*uck. I came to the play knowing nothing of its performance history, but as a great fan of Ridley’s previous work. As i saw it Mercury Fur was a continuation of the epic tragedy originally given form  in The Pitchfork Disney (1991): a modern fairy tale of love and loss; violence and intrusion; death and addiction. Though both plays seem to exude a malevolent tension, and themselves contain violent acts, i never considered them to be brutalist, gratuitous or overtly obscure. It seemed self evident that Ridley’s language is highly poetic and evocative and that the theatrical style he is working with is that of heightened realism. It never occurred to me to take the violence in the plays as perverse or somehow without purpose. Just like in Sarah Kane’s Blasted, the atrocities committed or described on stage are active: the perform an act and have a purpose.

However, when Fur first premiered in 2005 at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, the critics reacted with moral outrage and disgust, leading Charles Spencer of the Telegraph to, rather predictably, refer to it as ‘a poisonous piece’. Michael Billington thought that the depiction of contemporary society was ‘flying in the face’ of all the evidence that was to hand (?!).  At the play’s LA premiere Kathleen Foley commented that ‘“Fur” blurs the line between legitimate theater and torture porn’. The play’s reputation was only fueled by Faber flatly refusing to publish the script, despite Ridley’s request that they re-read the script. Fortunately, Ridley was given the opportunity to respond to the ample criticism both in an article in the Guardian Theatre Blog and in an extensive interview over at the Theatre Voice website.

This debate raises a lot of questions, some of which i think Ridley successfully manages to answer in the above interviews. But it does seems strange that even ten years after the mid nineties in-yer-face boom in abrasive theatre, critics and audiences still feel that showing violence in theatre is somehow a step too far. That we can see as many people get shot to death on movie screens, in such a variety of colourful ways, but as soon as that kind of imagery is brought to a theatre space it is too unbearable. The fact that all the violence occurs off-stage in Mercury Fur seems beside the point as far as critics are concerned.

I could spend thousands of words exploring this theme (and in a way i’d quite like to), but a large part of me is beginning to believe that the reason i loved it upon first viewing and the critics didn’t, is because i’m younger than them. When Ridley uses ‘butterflies’ as a metaphor for drugs and drug culture, how is Michael Billington going to make meaningful connection between Elliot’s reminiscences about ‘the beginning’ of butterflies and ‘the beginning’ of ecstasy (or mephedrone)? And even if he does pick up the parallel, will it mean anything to him? When Ridley makes young (post-)modern love into a nightmarish cartoon on stage, how could anyone so far from their teens relate to the portrait of love as the key to life?

either way, food for thought.

until next time…

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