Violence on Stage: Sheer Brilliance or Sheer Brutality?

Trigger Warning: the following post contains references to violence of a physical and sexual nature in theatre productions, as well as images containing stage blood.

Every now and then a play comes along which attracts a fair amount of media attention. And not purely for its contents. But its reaction.

The latest play to receive such treatment is Cleansed, currently playing at the National. A previously banned play, it certainly has controversial moments in it, including mutilation, assault and cannibalism. And that’s putting those mildly. If I wrote what actually happens with those things, I’d probably end up deleting that sentence, locking my phone in a drawer and sitting in the fetal position for the next two hours. The reaction it’s getting from audiences is pretty strong: there have been reports of fainting and walkouts. Given the content matter this is hardly surprising. But it’s not the first production to provoke such a reaction.

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The company of Cleansed. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

On the fainting front, the Globe’s Titus Andronicus caused around 40 people to faint. In one performance. This was due in part to the heat, with a lot of the audience members affected situated in the Yard, where you huddle together for the best view and stand for 3 hours. It’s also due though to the fact it’s a bloody, bloody play. Hands cut off, tongues cut out, another hand chopped off. And that’s not even including the final scene’s massacre! A notable addition to this version was a sexual assault during one character’s death scene, which when I saw for the first time nearly caused me to faint. And I was stewarding the performance, aka the one supposed to be helping those fainting!

Another notable audience reaction is the Royal Opera House’s William Tell a few years ago. The production opened with a scene in which a young female character is forced to strip nude and is molested by army officers. Not only did the audience react with understandable shock, but boos. Boos so vehement that the director issued an apology. Needless to say, it was not met with favourable reviews.

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The cast of Titus Andronicus. Copyright: Shakespeare’s Globe.

Booing is hardly new, as audiences have had similar reactions in the past. Even at Shakespeare. The first one which springs to mind is the King Lear which wasn’t massively popular with audiences for this brutality and nihilism. So bleak was it, Nahum Tate actually changed the original version, rewriting a ‘happy ending’. This became the definitive playing King Lear from 1681 to 1838, when it was fortunately reintroduced to English theatre in its proper form. Interestingly though, since its reincarnation modern playwrights have responded to this brutality. Edward Bond’s Lear is an even more gory retelling which features the eye gouging, but adds knitting needles being used to pierce one character’s eardrums and the mutilation of a body.

Which brings us back to Cleansed.

There’s something to be said for pieces which provoke such a strong reaction: staging that which we can’t or won’t imagine is happening, often somewhere in the world right now. On the other hand, when does it cross the line into gratuitous violence, a shock tactic to get people talking?

In the case of Cleansed, it seems to be the former in my opinion. Though if it is the latter, it’s certainly got people talking as evident from this very feature.

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