Working my way through ye olde ‘Exposure’ series for the first time in at least five years as I upload it to my Patreon site, I came across one instalment in the series the other day that was rather chilling in its Nostradamus-like prescience. This particular episode, produced roundabout 2013/14 (but no later), was a spoof of Channel 4 News and featured a lead story that perhaps explained why satire seems to be so thin on the ground these days. Basically, it announced the government had introduced a new law whereby saying something considered ‘offensive’ in the privacy of one’s home was now a criminal offence, and failure to report knowledge of such a heinous act was also illegal. I did wonder if Nicola Sturgeon had watched said video when it was on YouTube almost a decade ago and thought ‘Hey, that’s not a bad wee idea’. How can one compete in 2021, when reality has replicated parody?
Any prediction of future events in a work of satire is usually accidental; satire by its very nature exaggerates real life and subverts current events by offering a ridiculous slant on them. If current events eventually develop along lines suggested in a satire that was intended to imagine the most outrageous interpretation of, say, contemporary political policy, chances are the satirist is not directly responsible and those who are have no sense of humour. All kinds of wild scenarios are dreamt up in the name of satire, whether the Ministry of Silly Walks or the insane, nonsensical headlines on ‘The Day Today’. I certainly didn’t seriously foresee any government would actually propose a law in which such a subjective subject as causing offence would be pivotal to the increasing encroachment of the state into the private space. But, hey ho, we are living in even stranger days than we were a decade ago, when the foundations for these strange days were being laid and I was evidently picking up on what was happening – without realising where it was going.
One theme that runs through ‘Exposure’ is the infantilisation and mollycoddling of the young, something I continued in a video produced not long after the series ended, and one that remains on YT. This was a trailer for a new BBC3 service known as ‘Uni-Zone’, an Open University-like slot featuring ‘safe space’ learning complete with specially doctored courses and trigger warnings. Academia may have suffered the most high profile pollution of its purpose by this mindset, but the arts have fallen to the artless like the rest of our cultural institutions; the whole raison d’être of literature – especially fiction – is being strangled by it, and now the theatre has retreated back to the sterile playpen of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, wherein any play perceived as possessing the power to ‘trigger’ a delicate audience is trailed by not merely an onstage announcement before the production begins, but an entire leaflet listing potential ‘triggering’ moments.
A trigger warning, like a movie bearing an X certificate back in the old days, subliminally primes the viewer to expect something disturbing, so anything that appears – however innocuous – can be interpreted as such. Just as those who view the world through the prism of racism see racism in literally everything even when it isn’t there, telling an audience beforehand that they are destined to be disturbed by what they’re about to receive more or less guarantees they probably will be. If one were to take this approach to England’s most revered playwright, one might imagine the likes of ‘Titus Andronicus’, with its rapes, mutilations and cannibalism, would be the first to fall under the triggering spotlight. However, it is his most celebrated love story that has been wrapped in blood-stained cotton wool and served-up to what the producers anticipate as an audience of fragile snowflakes – and at the most prestigious Shakespearean venue of them all, the Globe. Boys and girls, prepare to be traumatised for life…by Romeo and Juliet.
Perhaps it’s telling that the only facet of the play one might consider potentially disturbing to a modern audience – the fact that Juliet is supposed to be thirteen – isn’t considered disturbing enough to the producers, who have instead jumped on the mental health bandwagon and concentrated on the tragic ending. The revised rules of cinematic entertainment under this new world order specify gay characters must be played by gay actors, trans characters by trans actors, disabled characters by disabled actors and so on; the whole point of acting, of one person adopting the identity of another and convincing an audience they are that person for the duration of the performance, is suspended and sacrificed for ‘authenticity’; if live theatre is to emulate the illogical logic of cultural appropriation, the climax of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ therefore demands the onstage suicide of the two leads every night, surely? That’d be correctly authentic for spectators unable to grasp the concept of pretence that is acting, yes? But no! It’s not two fresh faces for each performance! It’s the same ones – and that means they don’t really kill themselves. I want my money back!
However, just in case an audience fails to discern that what they’re watching isn’t genuine – as though they might mistake each confrontation between Montagues and Capulets taking place before them as akin to stumbling upon a mass brawl in a pub car park – the production’s checklist issues the reassuring declaration that everyone is actually pretending. What? I don’t understand. ‘Near the end of the play,’ says this helpful guide, ‘when Romeo drinks poison, the actor pretends to vomit and convulse. This is not real and he is not hurt.’ What? I don’t understand. Apparently, ‘at the end, Juliet shoots herself. This is not real.’ What? I don’t understand. ‘There is stage blood and vomit in this production. It is not real.’ No! ‘There is stage fighting in this production. The violence is not real and should not be copied.’ But isn’t this supposed to be real? What can all this possibly mean? If what we’re seeing isn’t real, what is it? Has some sadistic bastard invented some horrific new art-form to torment and torture us?
Amazingly, this production isn’t aimed at an audience of primary school infants – who might perhaps struggle to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not when it’s taking place outside of their internal imaginations – but proper grownups, or at least the almost-grownup (AKA millennials). Patronising them and crediting them with so little intelligence that they have to be told everyone onstage is pretending makes one wonder what the producers thought their potential punters imagined they were doing when finding themselves sitting in a theatre to watch a play. Even some laughable Legz Akimbo-type student theatre group touring schools and staging little plays about ‘issues’ wouldn’t stoop so low as to assume their audience couldn’t tell the difference between real life and acting. ‘Romeo and Juliet’, like most works by the Bard, is rooted in universal themes allowing for unlimited interpretations over the centuries; the flexibility of their themes can be attuned to whatever happens to be happening within contemporary culture, and in that respect I suppose this particular telling of the star-crossed lovers’ tale is upholding the tradition.
Helpfully, the info sheet accompanying the production offers any distressed audience member the comfort blanket of further info available at the box office, which is presumably now a branch of the Samaritans. A spokesperson for the Globe has stated the 2021 version of the play intends to ‘address problems young people face today’, almost as though no previous generation of young people have ever faced any of the problems the play is based around. ‘As we’ve chosen to focus on mental health,’ the spiel went, ‘we want to provide information to those who may need it.’ In other words, the entertainment factor has been sucked out of the play and what we’re left with is a glorified public information film for the mentally retarded.
© The Editor