Can suffering be entertainment?
Brian Keenan is an Irish writer whose work includes the book An Evil Cradling, an account of the four-and-a-half years he spent as a hostage in Beirut, Lebanon from 11 April 1986 to 24 August 1990. Without Warning is a theatrical dance performance directed by Lizzie Kew-Ross, performed in the OldVic Tunnels this week.
As soon as I saw the notice for Without Warning on the internet, I knew I must see it. Like other long-haul hostages (such as his cell-mate John McCarthy), Keenan was forced into a journey through the inner chambers of despair. How one can remain sane in such testing circumstances? And not only sane but able to write in beautiful prose about it afterwards.
Without Warning takes Keenan's book as a starting point but this was not a portrayal of Keenan's experience. "There is no sense of trying to do an Evil Cradling" said Natasha Logan, the Sound Director, in an interview printed in the programme. But this problematises the reference of the piece. If it is not 'about' Keenan & McCarthy's merciless incarceration, then what is it about? The audience starts off not having an intentionality to latch on to, and has to cast about mentally to find semiotic hooks, but the structure of the piece does not offer any easy resting places for the mind.
There are no seats, no stage, no single focus or evident pattern of placement within the huge space of the Old Vic Tunnels. The action moves quickly from place to place, resting here for a few moments, resting there for a longer time. The audience mill around to catch up, gather around like a cloud of voyeurs around some accident, then melt away and condense in another part of the Tunnels. Which is all very well, but what is this use of space for? If we adopt Stanislavski's maxim that every part of a performance must do some work, we must ask what is communicated by moving the action randomly around the Tunnels? The original experience of Keenan & McCarthy was totally focused on a tiny space for more than four years, but Without Warning almost seems to celebrate freedom of movement, with performers running and jumping with gay abandon. There is so much that could have been done to express 'containment', and yet most of the evening was an experience of liberty instead.
One scene that was scarily effective in touching on the trope of capture and imprisonment was the shepherding of the audience into one corner of the Tunnels by two performers bearing barriers of neon lights. I was with a gaggle of stragglers who got left outside the crush, and I could see the looks of genuine puzzlement, and a hint of concern, and the faces of the herded mass of auidence that revealed the same thought running across several minds, "What, exactly, are they going to do to us?"
In fact, there were several scenes that individually carried an impact, but the impact seemed to get diffused by the dislocation between the pieces. In the final scene, which stays etched in the memory, we watch as a female performer drags herself pitilessly across the rough floor on her back, picked out from the darkness by an intense beam of light. From our viewpoint, she is seen upside down, her face strangely dehumanised in the intense light, as she sings hauntingly into the void, and drags her body across the Earth towards us.
The imprisonment and torture of Keenan and McCarthy was an inhuman acts. Is it a suitable subject for an evening's entertainment? (And what is it about Western civilisation that it needs to be entertained so much?) And if we say this is not 'entertainment' but 'art', are we not just holding up a verbal fig-leaf to hide our embarrassment at our voyeuristic rubber-necking at the horrors of the world? If Lizzie Kew-Ross and her group had put on the same performance with no mention of Brian Keenan and his Evil Cradling, would so many people have crowded into these empty railway tunnels on this freezing night? I suspect not. So, were we there to spectate and feel the thrill of watching suffering? Or to grasp for an insight into Keenan's horrific experience and extraordinary achievement? Or just to bear witness to humankind's struggle to find meaning in a meaningless world? Probably all of the above.