Despite having read the Sick Festival blurb, I arrive at Fabrica to see Christopher Green’s ‘Prurience’ with two minutes to spare and the invented notion it will be an informative lecture on the evils of Internet porn. And to add insult to flawed logic I’ve decided the event must be billed as an ‘interactive performance’ due to the usual bit of Q & A audience participation thrown in at the end of such things. Oh no, it’s going to be a far less comfortable experience. Confusing, anger-inducing and at times excruciatingly embarrassing immersive theatre – set in a ‘fictional self-help group’ – that’s what I’ve inadvertently paid for.
‘My gosh’, I can almost hear you thinking, ‘all that for only £12 per ticket, sounds like a bargain.’ Yeah, well if I’d actually learned something about the world it might have been. Here is where I should point out that it wasn’t the director’s fault I didn’t read the brochure properly. AND that initially, the faux self-group setting was both convincing and impressive as an idea. BUT… my strong emotions were in reaction to the heavy-handed and, for me, tasteless portrayal of a vulnerable sector of society alongside a failure to use a part publicly funded platform for the sharing of culturally relevant factual material.
In the mood to cringe? – How about imagining you’ve come along to the show with me?
A woman with lots of hair and velvety bits coming off her asks us to make ourselves a name badge and write down our expectations of the evening on slips of paper. We do as we are bid before joining the ‘circle of trust’ in the centre of the room, where ‘Jack’, a lanky middle-aged man sporting the drippy cardigan and top-knot look, forcefully introduces us to our fellow porn addicts. After a couple of minutes, mild panic sets in. Some of these people seem legitimate – we’re in a Porn Addicts Anonymous meeting and we’re not addicted to porn! If we get found out they might think we’re taking the piss, which would be an awfully cruel thing to do, wouldn’t it?
Yes, I think it would. And as hippy mentor Jack goads us into co-writing a song about our feelings, staring into one another’s eyes and sharing our tales of woe, I’m getting increasingly annoyed about having become an unwitting collaborator in what now appears to be a public indictment of the therapy space – something to which I ascribe high social value. It wouldn’t be so bad if the satire was intentional, after all, everyone’s fair game in comedy. But the whole thing appears to be done in earnest, as a seriously patronising representation.
Ethical diversity policy covered: fake-addicts from a variety of age ranges, ethnic backgrounds and sexual preferences bore us with their aggressively over-acted, identikit sob-stories, whilst ‘Jack’, Christopher Green himself, flits around the circle watching the chaos unfold, like a geriatric Puck (weathered but still nimble).
The script, peppered with ‘cunts’ and ‘arseholes’ is as lewdly disappointing as being faced with a partners flaccid cock and the words, “Sorry, I must have drunk more than I thought” on your birthday.
We are hyper-aware that we’re now sitting in a room mocking the un-self-aware and the suicidal; scorning them for seeking help at the kind of places we wouldn’t be seen dead at. We are not empathising; we are looking down upon.
A contrived argument erupts between the actors-cum-addicts. By now we are deeply bored, except for once audience member, a blonde woman who keeps shouting out, “what is this? Is this real?” “Let’s remember we are here to talk about pornography”, Jack reprimands, shutting her down and reminding us not to spoil the show for the actors who look like they’re really enjoying the opportunity to keep saying things like, “I love wanking” – in a church.
Eventually, we are treated to the big reveal. The actors hidden in our midst (unfortunately glaringly obvious due to their Radio 4 Drama performance-styles) emerge… and sing another song. You know the bit at the end of Nighty-Night Episode One where Jill first sees Don wearing his red jumper in the church hall? – And she takes her shoe off and starts dancing to Marillion? No? Well anyway, it’s like that but without the humour.
In the Q & A it transpires that the director wanted us to lose ourselves in the unreality and actually consider our own relationships to porn by empathising with those of our peers brave enough to share. That would have been impossible. The whole thing was an exercise in audience manipulation and we were too confused to give a toss about porn – we were far too busy trying to count out which of the group were definitely actors and which were thinking of leaving. And this is where the artistic value appears to lie. Christopher explains that ‘asking his audience to consider who they give up their power up to’ is a question at the centre of all his work. We start to see that he does, after-all, have a world perspective.
Now the microphone is in circulation and everyone wants to talk about their personal experience of immersive theatre, not sex. Which is a shame because Professor Smith: resident sexologist at Sunderland University, is on hand to contextualise our feelings about ‘porn addiction’. Professor Smith (who bears huge resemblance to mainstream comedian Sarah Millican and is therefore impossible to take seriously) proceeds to hog the mike and convince us that even the sexperts don’t know much about it yet.
I raise my hand, “I don’t see how this makes for contemporary social commentary. We haven’t learned anything about porn addiction as a newly accepted condition. You could have made the same show about any type of addiction. It could have been set in 1970 and been about drug use, so I’m not sure what message you were trying to give.”
By way of an explanation, Christopher Green reminds us again of the link between porn usage and erectile dysfunction (a contentious issue, repeatedly crowbarred into the ‘addicts’ bleak monologues). He sounds like a priest harping on to choirboys about masturbation making you go blind. Professor Smith then inadvertently insults him by dismissing the link as ‘not statistically proven’. I smother an evil snigger.
When those of us brave or foolish enough to have stayed until the end (about one third of the audience) finally leave, we skulk away feeling like Marla Singer in Fight Club: lonely, exploitative culture-whores drawn to finding entertainment in the saddest and darkest of places. I suppose we could have a wank to cheer ourselves up when we get home.
Words by Rachel James