Usually one goes to the theatre to have a good night out. See an entertaining show, hopefully be provided with new insights or be confronted with emotions. Personally, I wouldn’t include fainting during a theatre performance as one of the goals of my good night. However, National Theatre’s latest production Sarah Kane’s ‘Cleansed’ had five audience members faint during one night and 40 people walk out of the show in its first week. ‘Cleansed’, the story of a university being turned into a sadistic totalitarian institution, features graphic scenes of torture, rape and violence – including electrocution, force-feeding and the cutting of one character’s tongue. Is this crossing the line beyond which live performance art should go? Does such a line even exist?
If is does, I would definitely argue that ‘Cleansed’ isn’t crossing it. Most of the violence on stage apparently looks very real, but it isn’t. Nobody is actually being electrocuted. There are, however, many art performances in which the artists actually hurt themselves. American artists Chris Burden, for example, had a friend shoot him in the arm with a rifle. It was performed in 1971, during the war in Vietnam and subsequent riots in US cities. More recently, Russian artist Petr Pavlensky used extreme self-violating methods to protest against the political environment in Russia. He entwined barbed wire around his naked body, sewed his lips together and nailed his scrotum to the Red Square in central Moscow. These works of performance art have such a clear purpose that the violence is justified, in my opinion. It serves an activist intent. You personally might not consider it art, but I don’t think that really matters.
What about violent performances that seem to use violence just for the sake of being violent? As Guardian’s theatre critic Micheal Billington, commented in his review of ‘Cleansed’: “For all the play’s visceral power, it left me feeling drained rather than shocked into new awareness.” Is this play just showing very graphic scenes without there being a clear purpose? I don’t think this can really be case. There are so many terrible things inflicted on human beings all over the world, some of them crudely supported by a government representing the people who walk out of violent shows. Those actions are so often completely pointless therefore violence depicted on stage should be allowed to be pointless as well. It mirrors the indifference with which people act in reality, when inflicting violence on real people. In my opinion, theatre should shock when it’s dealing with subjects like this.
Violence can be addictive to watch. Human nature sometimes works in weird ways, finding pleasure in seeing horrible things being done to someone on stage or on a screen while you are safe on the other side. Creating a live performance that features a lot of cruel imagery can thus be a way of attracting attention: it speaks to this strange desire for violence and subsequently attracts audience members.
A rendition of Titus Andronicus, performed at the Shakespeare Globe in 2006 and 2014, saw 43 people reportedly faint at one performance alone. Putting on a show that’s so violent that it engenders a very strong response can be something a director aims for. People fainting definitely shows their involvement in the piece and connection to the characters and emotion. I think here’s a difference between creating art and simply shocking people, but these aspects aren’t separate from one another.
Art changes the world. It doesn’t trigger social change overnight, but it can shift attitudes and assumptions, bit by bit. To do that, theatre has to be challenging. Challenging theatre doesn’t have to be off-putting, but it definitely can be. There has to be, and will always be, room for audience-pleasing work. Most productions show allusions to violence instead of proper gruesome imagery. In this way, challenging art stays accessible to wider audiences without losing all of its power. In my opinion, however, performance art cannot go ‘too far.’ As long as audience members are clearly warned beforehand, an artist should be able to do whatever he/she wants with as much violence as he or she deems necessary.