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22nd February 2014


Jessie Cohen explores theatrical spectatorship in Queer Theatre – is it a step towards political activism or a force for perpetuating passivity?

On the opening weekend of the Sochi Olympic Games, British queer performers burst onto the stage, attesting to the power of theatre to politicize audiences, during this sombre moment in Russian history. The Sochi Olympic spectacle of human achievement starkly counteracts a national clamp-down on LGBT human rights.

Admittedly more adept to showing dissent through subversive cultural exposure than active protest, I fashioned myself a weekend of theatrical and critical engagement. I went to Halifax to see Art with Heart’s Secret Diaries and attended the Queer Contact festival, which played host to the panel-led discussion – Your Place or Mine – in addition to catwalk spectaculars and good old-fashioned theatre, including the shocking and moving production, To Russia with Love.

Secret Diaries documents the actual experience of a woman who grew up in 1980s England ashamed of her homosexuality. Returning to her childhood home, which is still inhabited by a closeted father, Hayley (Sarah Emmott) negotiates homophobia in her home-town. Her father has internalized this prejudice as he refuses to recognize his daughter’s marriage to a woman, nor will he support her desire to adopt and raise a family.

This coming-out drama paints a dreary picture of British attitudes towards homosexuality once you penetrate intimate spaces stripped of PC pretence. It exposes the rigid schism in society between tolerance and acceptance, warning audiences not to conflate equalizing legislation, such as same-sex marriage, with a progressive shift in attitudes.

To Russia with Love also dramatizes real human experiences. It combines four independently directed productions to illuminate the widespread impact of Russia’s anti-gay policies on Russian youths, Western LGBT Olympiads, and even on closeted gay politicians in Russia who are coerced into voting for these policies.

To Russia With Love. Photo credit: Jessie Cohen

The play’s self-conscious approach created a transparent theatrical space, which facilitated a heightened atmosphere of sensitivity towards the subject at hand. Blurring the boundaries between active actor and passive viewer, actors doubled as spectators on occasion only to launch from their seats and pitch questions at the stage. At times, actors would even talk about the verbatim theatrical approach while the performance unfolded around them. Speaking to a fellow audience member who described the play as ‘refreshingly experimental’, I imagined the political potential that could arise from this energizing mode of theatrical communication.

Throughout the production, multiple voices fire off the stage, each positing a different angle on how to respond to the situation in Russia. One comment compared Sochi 2014 to the 1936 Berlin Olympics when ‘Jesse Owens went, competed and won – exactly the philosophy we should take to Russia […] visibility is the biggest issue here’.

Rather than endorse hasty, ego-filled protests and a Russian boycott, the play seemed to suggest that we must put down our placards and listen to voices on the ground. In a powerful re-enactment of a Manchester protest interrupted by a disgruntled gay Russian visiting the city, we are aligned with the berated actor-protester who joins the audience to listen to this man’s perspective: ‘You don’t understand Russian mentality. This law was penned by the church. There’s only so much a gangster like Putin can do. Russia is very different to Britain. It is just a very homophobic country. Western pressure is only fuelling the fire.’ Instead of counteracting this shocking display of apathy and hopelessness, the play invites us to engage Russia ‘with love’ rather than anger. It teeters, however, on the problematic suggestion that we must dilute our reactions with a pacifying relativism.

During the lively discussion at Your Place or Mine, an audience member asked; ‘Can you really fight for a cause that is not your own?’ Manchester lecturer, Monica Pearl responded staunchly advocating the need for direct action, asserting that ‘protests are incredibly important even if you can’t see the impact in the moment.’ Pointing to the small-scale nature of the Canal Street protest on the eve of the opening ceremony, Pearl added that despite an inability to draw mainstream crowds, ‘even a small protest is a megaphone to society’.

Ending on a similar, though slightly contradictory, note, To Russia with Love gave an affirmative nod to direct action: ‘There are no rights without people fighting for them. We need to make a show!’

An example of audience passivity? Photo credit: Jessie Cohen

As clapping faded into an en masse shuffle for possessions and wine glasses, my sister stared at the stage in disbelief. ‘There was no standing ovation’, she said, ‘if we can’t stand up in a theatre, how are we going to show support in the streets?’ Her dismay at a socially pervasive passivity, demonstrative of the unbending apathy of the times, tainted my self-congratulatory feeling for a weekend ethically ‘well-spent’.

While I chastised myself for dropping the baton along with my fellow theatre-goers, I was reminded of the message that Secret Diaries delivers, that battling homophobia at home, including internal prejudices, is an important starting point for any activist position. Relieved, I concluded that theatre can be activistic-ish after all.


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