Rebecca McCutcheon

Director theatre & site specific performance

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Mob-handed – research & development for The Massacre

Mob-handed – the crowd as character – Workshop 12th March

IMG_1204 In our second workshop at the Jerwood Space, we explored our text within the context of its claustrophobia, its sense of urgency, and more than anything, its sense of shared experience. A walk-through, on our feet, in which no-one in the space was a mere observer. All of us, whether portaying a character or acting as witness to the action, were required to be involved in the action, and there was no concept of being ‘outside’ of it.

This work led on from the previous week in which we had read the text through for the first time, complete with the author’s extremely detailed stage directions to performers. This is an 18th century ‘lost’ text, an attempt at writing about state atrocity, violence and trauma which was itself suppressed from public performance. The text invites many layers of response and interrogation: its relationship to terrible historical events (patchy, hearsay, yet containing moments of reported ‘truth’), its negotiation of how and whether to represent violence and atrocity, placing violence off-stage, but summoning it with an increasing intensity. Its ultimate silence in the face of trauma, its denial of a voice to perpetrators.
This is just the start of the journey with this text, but the impact of this evening’s active reading was marked. This is a text about atrocity that summons and acts upon the violence it seeks to condemn. It contains sparks of contagion, it works with extra-textual qualities – sounds, atmospheres, and most of all, the increasing sense of the approach of the mob. Among many of the insights from tonight’s reading is the way in which the material – the reporting of horror, the need to verify its status as eyewitness account and not lurid imaginings – places this as a play in dialogue with much contemporary theatre and visual art works which attempt to negotiate the difficult, disputed terrain of how to represent that which, it has been argued by many, is unrepresentable.

IMG_1248Another stand out moment, developed through the urgency of the writing and emerging through the shared storytelling, was a sense of the mob as a character. This is a play which attempts to warn of the dangers of unthinking group violence, of the labeling of the other as evil or less than human. In doing so it conjures up a disturbing presence – that of the mob itself. Felt as a live presence in the space, its contagious affect tangible to me, I sense the power of the journey this text is taking us upon, its importance and also how very disturbing it is. This is a deeply ethical, important text for today.


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A Testimony and a Silence at Dilston Grove

DVD label

May 2014 – a site-specific performance piece in Dilston Grove in Southwark Park. Dilston Grove is an arts space and former church in which the rarely-performed play, The Massacre by Elizabeth Inchbald, was explored. The play is extraordinary and prescient, a discussion of the tragedy of genocide, written by Inchbald during the French Revolution. It is a play whose tense relationship to terror and to violence, and to human values of respect and humanity, found rich ground in the association of meanings generated by Dilston’s craggy, evocative spaces.

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Vibrant Objects – a Workshop at the Jerwood Space, 5th March 2014

Diarmaid Browne; image Talullah Mason

Diarmaid Browne; image Talullah Mason

‘It is never we who affirm or deny something of a thing; it is the thing itself that affirms or denies something of itself in us.’
Baruch Spinoza, Short Treatise II

‘Thing-Power : the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle’
Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter

In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett theorizes a ‘vital materiality’ that runs through and across bodies, both human and non-human. She explores how political analyses of public events might change were we to acknowledge that agency always emerges as the adhoc configurations of human and non-human forces. Recognising that agency is distributed in this way and is not the sole province of humans, Bennett suggests, might spur the cultivation of a more responsible, ecologically sound politics, through what she terms as ‘vital materialism’.

As a director and researcher I’m deeply enmeshed in materiality in my work: of spaces, of sites, of objects and of actors bodies. I’ve long held an interest in the generative possibilities of sites: multiple, layered, complex; and responding to and exploring these are central to the ways that I work and research. Bennett’s appeal, in Vibrant Matter, to attend to and accord matter and objects with the capacity to act, to influence other bodies, makes sense to me. Its radical aim, the de-hierarchising of categories of being, towards a flatter, more aware treatment of ourselves in co-existence with matter, and matter’s capacity to act upon us, in pursuit of a more enlightened political ecology, is exciting, appearing to hold possibilities for an affective, critical spatial practice.

In the Jerwood Space in south London, March 5th 2014, objects, matter, bodies in alignment, make initial attempts at opening up Bennett’s ‘space of vibrancy’. We, the ‘actors’ (‘actants’?) explore the space, and seek out objects which speak to us, which resonate. If Bennett is correct, if her radical call for the application of Spinoza’s ‘bodies’, across human and non-human matter can awaken heightened engagement with the materiality of existence, a useful awareness of the vibrancy of matter, a radical political ecology, what might this vision entail for performance and devising processes?

In a roundabout way, Bennett’s task links me back to my early influence, polish director and artist Tadeusz Kantor. Kantor’s work on “Informel Theatre” progressed through objects of low rank, objects on the brink of being rubbish and being objects: like Bennett’s ‘shimmering’ objects. Objects which have lost their link with instrumentalism, are available to us in other ways:

‘the lower the rank of the object, the greater the chance of revealing its objectness’
Tadeusz Kantor, Theatre of the Fairground Booth, A Journey Through Other Places

‘Objects at the threshold of becoming matter – rage tatters junk garbage’
Tadeusz Kantor, The Informel Theatre, A Journey Through Other Places

Roger Thompson; photo Talullah Mason

Roger Thompson; photo Talullah Mason

Exploring non-representational uses of objects, Kantor’s methods encourage actor-object collaborations: the creation of “object characters” who are non-human, animate, pursuing desires and actions through integration of person and object. In this workshop, made possible by the generous support of the Jerwood Space, objects were encountered, actors tested and explored their capacity for movement, for sound, their textures, ways in which meaning is generated through a gestural encounter. The squeaking wheels and groaning wood of a piano became a barrier through which horror was both revealed and veiled. A cold, shimmering metal pole was balanced, appearing weightless, then dropped clattering to the ground, evoking a lightness of being with a sudden catastrophic weightedness. An almost functionless dustbin lid became the obscene stand-in for a murdered child, gesturing its own profanity even as it evoked the void of loss.

These objects when encountered with openness, as if active agents of meaning, responded, in a sense, to our offer. In contact and encounter, other meanings became generated, non-rational, powerful associations arise. The potential of ‘thing-power’, in the context of the affective site, seems to me to be promising, offering in-roads to creative engagement with the material traces in a site which, through their concrete materiality hold us in the present immediate physical moment, while also gesturing towards other layers of association.