Media and identity
The Twilight Zone (Almeida Theatre), Parliament Square (Bush Theatre) and Network (Lyttleton, National Theatre)
Three mesmerizing plays are running on London theatre stage at the moment and, while being very different, they share a common theme of investigating the interconnections between media-inspired fantasies, fears and dreams and human identity and a desire to deliver one’s own message to the world. In our media-obsessed age, the pressure of images and words delivered from TV screens and internet is immense and has to be accommodated into our psyches notwithstanding possible wishes to be media-content-free. We are also not immune either to immersion into what media offers or to spontaneous responses and rebellions against its pressures. McLuhan’s ‘medium is the message’ certainly holds true – you cannot avoid experiencing the transformation of message conveyed to you when the media that deliver it change. It is interesting how different theatre directors treated this relationship between media and humans in their new shows.
The Twilight Zone, which is currently on at Almeida Theatre is quite a daring cross-media move just because of the sheer fact that it decides to use theatre as a place to adapt famous American TV series aired on CBS from 1959 to 1964. The series were shot entirely in black and white to create a very specific eerie style needed for the show, and featured stories of mixed genre (fantasy, thriller, sci-fi) always including an unexpected, enthralling twist and a moral. The ending always included a voice-over inviting the viewers to contemplate what they had just seen and indicating that these grey zones between reality and fantasy can only happen in ‘the twilight zone’. Anne Washburn has adapted eight episodes of the series (from different years) for this production. However, according to Anne’s and director Richard Jones’ decision, they don’t follow one another but appear in a collage which has quite an intricate dramaturgy of its own. Beginnings and endings of stories can be interrupted by visual pantomime or changes of interior and then after a piece from another story and may be a third one the viewer sees the continuation of the first one, being already familiar with general style and genre of the whole narrative.
The set designer Paul Steinberg remains faithful to black and white monochromes of the original series, and, apart from other idiosyncrasies, the audiences at the Almeida also have to adapt to fifty shades of grey which are characteristic of this production and include costumes (by Nicky Gillibrand) which often look like glistening snake skins. The pieces of furniture are kept at minimum, but have a strong presence when they are there, and are moved on and off stage by the cast who acquire robotic qualities during these moments. These decisions of the creative team succeed in doing the thing similar to what the TV series were aiming at and that is to irrevocably draw the audience into this magical and surreal, but also funny and scary world.
The plots unweaving in the show are worth mentioning. These eight stories have a man (John Marquez) afraid of falling asleep lest he dies of the effects of his ongoing dream (and he does – of heart attack – in his sleep), a girl (Adrianna Bertola) disappearing into the fourth dimension with her father (Cosmo Jarvis) walking in it to save her, an astronaut (Sam Swainbury) who is sent on the 40-years-long mission while his girlfriend (Franc Ashman) freezes herself for him, a woman (Amy Griffiths) who is confronted with her mother’s murderer (Neil Haigh), an alien Martian (John Marquez) smoking with his third hand meeting a no-less-alien Venetian (Sam Swainbury) spotting a third eye under his hat. There is also a group of returnees from a space flight (Matthew Needham, Cosmo Jarvis and Oliver Alwin-Wilson) whose existence on earth is never confirmed as the newspaper article about them shows varying numbers of heroes ranging from three to none, as though their flight never happened. There is also an episode with neighbours trying to hide from a radioactive catastrophe and desperately knocking on the door of a closed underground shelter. The last one highlights the social and moralizing content of the series. Two couples (white American and African American) reveal their mutual suspicions and fears in the moment of danger and hatred only to get reconciled after the threat is over. There is also constant insecurity of lonely women and girls in the production, dependance of individuals on excruciating orders from above and fragility in the face of the unknown. And there is a constant presence of hospitals, bedrooms and closed-off spaces (like an office of a psychotherapist or a bar) as liminal territories potentially dangerous for lonely humans.
All stories are indeed weird and full of strange, twilight-coloured forebodings. The only difference between us and the viewers of the TV series in the 1950-1960s is in the following. In the Almeida we are aware of several layers of genre irony taking place on stage that is replicating TV, and I think this angle is what makes this show really special. The production is constantly ‘well aware’ of the fact it is a staging of old-fashined TV-series which were rooted in fears, prejudices and fantasies of people of the 1960s. It makes us eagerly delve into this reality, but always deliberately shows a way out of it as actors are talking in deliberately hushed or foreboding voices, or scream too unnaturally, or are surprised in exaggeration equalling a parody of real emotions.
While watching The Twilight Zone, we begin to understand how fears, fantasies and imaginations of people who watched these series had been manipulated and what were the means of achieving it. So we laugh at the incongruity of some of the remarks and characters as often as we hold our breaths in anticipation of the development of the story. Finally, in the end we are led out of this reality by John Marquez (the Narrator) who is dressed exactly like a giant puppet nearby (theme of manipulation overtly displayed) and tells us, in a very serious (but masterfully stylized) intonation not to forget about where we are, what we are watching, and where we are sitting and what a constructed fantasy world we have been experiencing. And that final break-down of the fourth wall which has been crumbling throughout the show is actually the most mesmerizing, dream-like, the most eerie moment of the whole show – a kind of deus ex machina magic indeed.
The Twilight Zone, Almeida Theatre. Credits: Marc Brenner
Another production that explores the relationship between media and human identity, albeit in a completely different vein, is a Royal Exchange Theatre (Manchester) / Bush Theatre production of a new play Parliament Square (a winner of 2015 Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting) by James Fritz. The play is about a young married woman who wants to rebel against the state of today’s world as she sees it on TV screens, hears on the radio and reads about in the newspapers. Although always thinking about her baby daughter, she decides to burn herself at the Parliament Square for people to see so that the society gets her message of distress and a change happens. She doesn’t succeed and after a painful recovery raises a daughter with her husband only to later confront a girl who had saved her life many years ago and to look back at what she might have done then.
The play experiments with structure and seamlessly moves from an unrealistic piece of a main protagonist Kat, played by Esther Smith, talking to her inner voice (Lois Chimimba) to ‘normal’ conversations in the hospital and then back to a post-modernist, speeded-up collage of Kat and her husband Tommy’s (Damola Adelaja) life after her incident and then again to a final conversation between Kat and her saver Catherine played by Seraphina Beh. The play is too neatly constructed for us not to realize at some point how it might end: it calls for this reversal of roles and it powerfully, although expectedly, gets there. The young girl Catherine, influenced by Kat’s idea, gradually believes that burning herself publicly is indeed the only way to escape chaos and TV-induced fear that is ruling the contemporary world. She also asks Kat to film her so that her message might be spread through Internet, the new media for her age. Catherine as played by Beh physically resembles the inner voice played by Chimimba as to remind the viewer of the return of Kat’s rebellious inner self, as though indeed it was now the younger version of Kat bursting into flames (staged with some sparkling confetti falling over her).
The show’s set design (Fly Davis) is bare, almost non-existing. We have to imagine almost everything, including people who call Kat when she is on her way to Parliament Square (very effective splashes of different voices and lights coming from above the stage) and her bruises and burns (Esther Smith is bandaged with a tight orange piece of material over her abdomen and legs). The passing years of her family life are indicated only by ‘Happy Birthdays’ sung to the daughter Jo (played also by Lois Chimimba) sang between speech extracts from everyday conversations of Kat, Tommy and their two friends (Kelly Hotten and Jaimie Zubairi) sketching the progression of their everyday routines.
With such interesting structural decisions present in the play, the scenes with the physiotherapist (Kelly Hotten) and with Kat’s mother (Joanne Howarth) seem slightly redundant, as they just add something moral and superfluous to the idea of a non-understood personal riot. Also, some details of the society surrounding Kat lack detail, and we just get a sense of contemporary suspence and chaos (with Grenfell Tower mentioned in the end of the play) without further details to support the idea of danger leaking to her mind from TV screens. But overall it seems a very clever and daring production which makes us think about the challenge of standing up alone and voicing your fears and anger to others, and questions whether such acts could indeed make an impact. James Fritz thinks they could, although self-burning here is developed by the playwright as an idea, a symbol rather than a realistically possible act, and in no way the audiences should be encouraged to blindly follow the example.
Parliament Square, Bush Theatre. Credits: Richard Davenport
The third play touching upon similar themes is Network directed by Ivo van Hove at the Lyttleton (National Theatre). Interestingly enough, it is, similarly to ‘The Twilight Zone’, based on the pre-existing screen version, in this case Paddy Chaevsky’s film ‘Network’ (1976) adapted for stage by Lee Hall. The production has Ivo van Hove collaborating again (after astonishing ‘Hedda Gabler’ last year) with his long-term creative and life partner, the designer Jan Versweyveld on a quite ambitious piece of theatre. It seems that The Damned by the same creative duo, adapted from the screenplay of Lucino Visconti and shown at Avignon Festival 2016, seems to have been a preparation (or at least a step towards) this show, as it also has themes of rebellion against the regime and extensively uses visual media as part of the production design.
The same happens in Network and it has, as it seems in the beginning, some softer issues than a fight against fascism to tackle: a story of UBS media network which has to deal with its ever-declining ratings and the man who decided to commit suicide on air just because he had come to a dead-end in his life. But the story in Van Hove’s production actually reaches to the point when it has almost the same theme as The Damned – the relationship between media (here an opressive, cynical and ruthless empire raising to God-like stature) and the individual. The story is about Howard Beale (played by Breaking Bad series star Bryan Cranston) who is first almost sacked for wanting to commit suicide on air and then hired again to vent his anger as his sermons that often verge on madness are expected to boost ratings. He becomes a TV preacher, a guru who makes people on invisible screens and Lyttleton audiences alike shout ‘I am mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore’. However, being very refreshing at first, his speeches, as the show progresses, begin to sound dangerously conservative and actually start to veer too quickly into chauvinism and fascism. The rebel sounds very much like Donald Trump (and here the quotes are intentional), while he also becomes a liability in the sphere that in Van Hove’s strong message, are more important than any ideology nowadays, and that is money (coming from Arab sheikhs). And that is why he finally has to be done with – now quite expectedly, to round up a play’s structure, indeed dying on air and under our excited eyes.
The most exciting thing about Network is a constant interplay between what is being said through its plot (the message) and how it is done – through screens and devices for direct streaming of what is going on stage (the medium). The last one becomes a powerful message in its own right in this production. It is actually not a show about the rebel and the powerful Network, it is a contemplation on the fact that we all like to watch each other. The characters are constantly watched by their own colleagues (as this is what TV studio is like), people on the set, including the ones on air and the ones behind the booth, are overlooked in their turn by cooks who are constantly busy preparing plates and diners who have paid up to 95 pounds (this is the price featured on National Theatre website) to have immersive experience called Foodwork. We, the audiences, are watching them all, enjoying our occasional interactive moments when we are shouting (and people did shout it, oh my God, I thought) after Beale: “I am as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it any more”. We watch ourselves on huge projections, as well, surprised at first and then glowing in this sense of mass exposure in a big London theatre. We are all there, all connected in a huge circle of voyerism. And additionally, we are also part of this luring power of the medium, as we have queued for tickets from 6am or bought them on Friday Rush, and some of us also splashed out up to one hundred quid to be part of this constant viewing and showing.
Also, to bring ‘voyerism’ closer to its meaning, we also watch a developing relationship (a subplot of the show) between a youngish, cold and ambitious Diana Christensen (played by Michelle Dockerty) and a middle-aged executive of UBS Max Schumacher (Douglas Henshall), and we enjoy every minute of their confrontation and competition which begins to develop some grains of love towards the end. There is a particularly enthralling sequence when Max and Diana walk on the embankment near the National theatre while being filmed live and then walk in into Lyttleton and start having sex near the diners nearby. This is definitetely a model of what we are seeing in the show – TV makes us all naked and imposed, and we are no longer confused by it, we actually seek fame and exposure through multiplication of surrounding screens and our potential viewers. We constantly check our ‘ratings’ revealed to us through likes and followers, we seek fame for ourselves or constantly look out for famous people as an opportunity either to deliver a message or become enthralled by one. We all become Kats and anti-Kats from ‘Parliament Square’ in our desires to do something ‘heroic’ while being filmed, while also simultaneously watching similar acts done by others. While The Twilight Zone explored the grey zone where TV mediates and influences human identity, Parliament Square delved into how media provide grounds for nervous backgrounds as well as opportunities of an individual rebellion. Network, in its turn, seems to be a giant satire on our intricate variety of involvement with the media, and in ruthlessly revealing our dependence on it, it is both exhilarating and excruciating.
Network, Lyttleton (National Theatre). Credits: Jan Versweyveld