at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 5th October 2012
Ok, I admit it. I’ve hardly started my attempts at New Criticism very well. Granted, the proof of that metaphorical pudding will be in its eating, but I should have probably attempted to turn up to the first show post-epiphany sober, free-thinking and awake. I was none of these things. Following a manic few days and an evening enjoying drinks and chats with new members of the Warwick Drama gang, my mind fizzing and buzzing with fresh energy and exciting ideas (and the remnants of a discussion about the next Artistic Director of the National), I was probably not in the best position to be viewing and critically responding to Chris Goode’s Monkey Bars. Nonetheless, in order to attempt to regain a modicum of professionalism, the piece has been reread this morning and following some note scribbling, I’m now better positioned to get some words typed up.
I guess, in a way, I straddle the line between Goode’s broad suggestions of what it means to be an “adult” and a “child”, in that I am considered old enough to make my own choices and take responsibility, but, by and large, I am not listened to or considered by society. Until we buy into establishment ideals and become self-interested consumers, we are not seen as “fully functioning” and are described variously as “leeches”, “lazy” and “idealistic”. Monkey Bars, therefore (which takes children’s conversations verbatim and puts them in the mouths of adults), speaks to me as both subject and object. The overall effect is one of charm and joy, but beneath the warm exterior there are some darker themes and a bubbling anger.
Of particular interest is Goode’s decision to have the actors speak not in children’s voices but as themselves, which does a few things. First, it makes the words the focus. In a world which throws images and emotions at children constantly, this forces us to listen to what’s being said rather than how. True, we laugh at the content and the multiple uses of the word “like”, but fundamentally the words are of paramount importance. I’d be interested to hear the original recordings to see how much intonation has changed in performance. My guess would be that Goode has allowed actors a bit of freedom to change inflection (or at least more freedom than, say Alecky Blythe would give) so as to elucidate meaning and discover moments of comedy or poignancy. I say this due to the inclusion of a “job interview” scene, which sees a panel of children questioning another about what superhero she’d like to be. Here, the tone of the three interviewers is a little harsh, mimicking that of a panel of managers, including an aggressiveness I doubt was there in the real recording. Some may say this dilutes the impression given and to an extent changes the meaning of what’s being said, but it goes back to the idea that the words are key.
The choice to have the company speak as adults was, I imagine, hardly a difficult one for Goode, for to do that would be nigh-on suicidal. It’s true that, as one child says, adults are louder and so get listened to more. Doing this gives the words a gravitas which they wouldn’t have if the actors mimicked a child’s voice. We as an audience have to interrogate why this happens, and come to the startling conclusion that it is not, as we’d like to believe, about the content, but about all our prejudices which float around this.
Naomi Dawson’s design also straddles the gap between mature and playful. A green mat could be both turf and a playground floor simultaneously, whilst pouffe-sized illuminated white cubes references modern designer living and play dens. They shine throughout, as during the darkened scene changes they look like bright Tetris shapes floating in the dark, rearranging themselves into their next image. At the beginning of the piece, the six actors come onto stage in white shirts and black trousers, and it seems a school-child look has been opted for, but as soon as they don black business jackets, the line is once again blurred. The situations in which they find themselves – a smart bar, a fine restaurant – are therefore not incongruous with the characters they are playing.
Though Goode is not doing anything blatantly political, there’s something extremely subversive about Monkey Bars, essentially suggesting that if we listened to children (and those with childish ideas) more, we may progress more as a nation. At one point, it is suggested that wars should be stopped (“game over”) and at another one boy gives a pretty watertight argument against the monarchy. More than that, however, the production asks why we differentiate between these ideas arbitrarily, and why someone like, say, David Cameron, is given more credence with his pig-headed and regressive ideas than a child who just wants to play. One thing which is often said of artists is that we (they) stay as children forever, never failing to question and inquire, constantly wishing to play and following a determination to explore. It is artists who change things and shift ideas, and if it’s true that they are children, then it follows that children are artists. In our approach to public policy and government, then, there’s an implication in Monkey Bars that we should be more playful. We should be unafraid to make mistakes.
Alongside the political dimension in the very notion of listening to children, there is exploration here of the idea of prejudice. The children are asked to talk about gender and religion, demonstrating in these scenes just how much we condition our offspring to believe what we believe. It suggests a leaning towards nurture in the nature/nurture debate, as it’s clear these characters are just regurgitating the ideas of the adults around them. True, they’re only complaining that girls “kick weak” or that “boys are gross”, but its obvious the gender divide is already strongly entrenched at this young age.
I think it’s worth considering, too, the rise of (popular) verbatim theatre over the past few years, and its relation to Monkey Bars. I’ll try to find time to write about this more at some point, but my brain is currently wondering whether there’s a link between the popularisation of verbatim theatre and Zizek’s discussion of problems with The Real. Zizek argues that “The pursuit of the Real…equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle.” I.e, in attempting as a western capitalist society to become more in touch with an idea of “reality” which has become more and more difficult to attain and understand, we turn to staged events which feel extremely raw in order to regain this basic knowledge. In the case of verbatim theatre, therefore, we fool ourselves into thinking that what we are watching is perhaps more “real” that it actually is. On one hand, this makes the whole concept of this style of performance problematic, as it merely feeds an underlying inability to separate ‘the Real’ from ‘reality’. On the other hand, however, it helps us see that a sensory reality is able to be dissociated from an authentic truth through our awareness that what we are seeing on stage can never be the only way of showing events. I don’t quite know where Monkey Bars fits into all this, except that the dislocation of the children’s words and adult voices represents a similar kind of merging of realities which has been experienced since 9/11. As I say, it’s early days on what I think about this whole problem at the moment, but give me time to mull it over a bit longer and I’ll see what I can come up with.
These blends of reality and the Real, adult and child, playful and serious all give Monkey Bars its charming, semi-Brechtian feel. At every stage, we have to stop ourselves from allowing our minds to run away with ideas as we remember the words currently being spoken were articulated by a child who often feels like they’re not listened to. Goode and his company invite us to think about these experiences after the show, considering them in more depth, but whilst in the theatre we must listen. It’s the least we can do.