I started trying to pin down my views on Ulster American and ended up going a bit apocalyptic. Here are some loosely tied thoughts on shows that tackled sexual assault at the fringe because every time I try to move on from them, I keep getting dragged back.
In Breach Theatre’s It’s True, It’s True, It’s True, Ellice Stevens plays 15 year old Artemisia Gentileschi. She’s a 17th century baroque painter giving evidence in court against her alleged rapist Agostino Tassi. Winding art history analysis and verbatim transcripts, Breach rebuild the trial.
Even though Tassi is the accused, Gentileschi is being questioned. Made to do a lie-detector test, Stevens places her hands into a contraption that’s beautifully portrayed by director Billy Barrett in a way I won’t spoil. Sophie Steer, playing Tassi, leans in. She is terrifying, electrifying. She and Stevens stand, side on, eyes locked, leant towards each other like the edges of a triangle about to touch at its tip. As Steer questions her, Stevens is defiant. She’s telling the truth, she says. She’s telling the truth. She’s telling the truth and this isn’t fair and she’s telling the truth and it’s true. She repeats it again and again. It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.
That moment feels stuck on a loop in my mind and it doesn’t stop for the rest of the fringe.
It’s still going as a video of Samira Elagoz plays slowly on a screen in Cock Cock… Who’s There? Her lips are slightly parted, red and shining wet. Cum drips down her tongue. She takes a seat in front of her own image and looks at it for a while.
It’s still going as two men drink large glasses of wine in the studio theatre of the Traverse in Ulster American. One stares at the other in disbelief. The man on the sofa has just said that if he had to rape anyone, he’d pick Princess Diana. I’m trying very hard not to let anyone notice I’m crying.
It’s still going as, after an hour of trying to keep myself awake in an unutterably boring play I won’t name, the actor who has just bowed and said thank you for listening reveals the play is the true story of their assault, and I end up feeling guilty for the rest of the day.
At this year’s Edinburgh fringe, every second show seemed to be investigating sexual assault and the concept of consent, so much so that a whole section of the programme was classified as responses to the #MeToo movement. Some shows used the topic to make skin crawl. They painted the city in bright gold with letters that read THIS IS REALLY FUCKED UP AND WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS. But others did little to challenge or question, using stories of assault as emotional manipulation or simple shock tactics.
Granted, every story of assault is valid, important and stunningly brave of anyone to talk about, with sometimes brilliantly therapeutic effects for having shared it. But I am quite certain that not every one should be made into a play and a paying audience be made to sit and watch it.
I’ve written about, taught and researched sexual assault and consent for a few years. I’m not easily shocked by talk of it and I’m fascinated by ways of portraying it on stage. But this fringe it began to feel overwhelming. I started to wish for days without another show about toxic masculinity or assault.
There were two stories in particular that I couldn’t get out of my head after the month was up: Daughter and Ulster American. Both caused a significant amount of controversy throughout August. People disagreed about the ways in which the shows could and should caused offence, in the use of laughter and the control of language. I found myself on the extreme end of both performances, loving one and severely disliking the other.
Daughter is a one-man show by Adam Lazarus. It starts as stand-up and devolves into tense drama. Ulster American is a dark satire, a three-hander by David Ireland. Both, I think, intend to attach the end of your laughter with something bitter, questioning how far you should really be finding it funny.
I thought Daughter astonishing (I reviewed it for The Guardian). Lazarus tells a story about his six year old daughter, his wife and his relationship to women. To what extent it is fictionalised is never clear, which is part of what makes it so shocking. It was one of the first shows I saw and one of the only ones to stick with me through the whole month. When people ask what the best thing I saw at the fringe was, this is often the one I mention first. Lazarus’ storytelling is vivid and profusely uncomfortable. It’s incredibly self-aware, knowing exactly how uneasy it makes people feel. I hugely admired too, that the company offered a chat with any uncertain audience members before or after the show to explain what would be/had been discussed. Not everyone showered it with praise though, and Alice Saville’s cutting piece for Exeunt is worth a read.
In many ways Ulster American sets about doing something similar to Daughter. It tells a story of male violence against women through jokes and gritted teeth, becoming more extreme and eventually ending in farcical levels of destruction. Unravelling multiple political and social issues between a playwright, an actor and a director over the course of one evening, it is brutal in both language and action. They hold many similarities. Why then, did I feel so vastly different in Ulster American?
The first twenty minutes or so of Ulster American centre around director Leigh (Robert Jack) and actor Jay (Darrell D’Silva) getting to know each other before they start on their new play. At one point, Jay raises a hypothetical scenario of who you’d rape if you had a gun held to your head.
It’s worth noting any personal experience affects responses towards stuff like this, of course. But I’ve seen sexual assault discussed and performed so many times on stage over the last few years and it’s rarely got under my skin so unbearably. Something about Ulster American was different.
In a podcast I did with Tim Bano and Lyn Gardner, I tried to defend my reaction – namely that I sort of went into shock and cried a lot and desperately wanted to leave the theatre. I said on the podcast that I didn’t find any of it funny. That was wrong of me – it was an overstatement in an attempt to understand and protect my own disgust, because actually parts of it are funny, and some of it later on did make me laugh or guffaw in that kind of I-shouldn’t-be-laughing-at-this way. But for most of it I just felt sick. I felt so deeply stabbed by the audience laughter at the prolonged rape joke, the detail the script went into and the twisting round of words it did to try and justify its place on the stage. Talking for a prolonged period of time about rape to a background of laughter is distressing, and I wish I’d been warned about that before going into the theatre. The whole play felt like the slightly tipsy and overly smug provocateur at the pub who sees how much what they’re saying upsets you, says “just to play devil’s advocate” and intellectually trumps you to force you to admit they have a point, all the while making you feel infinitesimally small and rendering your viewpoint insignificant. In its uppityness it felt like it was devaluing genuine stories of assault.
The audience reaction matters significantly for this kind of play, and perhaps it changed later in the run, but in Daughter the room felt deeply uncomfortable, laughter hesitant and fading as the story got darker, while in Ulster American the unabashed laughter felt emboldened every time the rape joke was mentioned yet again. It felt it was allowing the laughter rather than criticising it.
I wonder if I’d feel differently had a woman written it. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I hadn’t seen the press performance and had read reviews prior to seeing it. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I’d known more about David Ireland’s previous work. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I had never had to relearn intimacy. I wonder if I’d feel differently if I had seen more comedy about sexual assault. I wonder if I’m just being overly sensitive.
But I also wonder if it needed a place on stage. I wonder if a woman would have written it. I wonder if it would get a different reaction if that room was full of an audience of victims of sexual assault. I wonder if that matters. I wonder if we need more comedy about rape. I wonder if we need to embrace the laughter. I wonder if we need to burn it all down. I wonder if my thoughts on this align with anyone else’s. I wonder if the fact that had I been reviewing it for my paper it would have gotten a significantly less positive write up and star rating makes me a better or worse critic than I would hope. I wonder why I still can’t find the right words for this. I wonder if that’s a good or a bad thing.
The loop of Tassi’s trial keeps rolling.
It was going on 400 years ago in that courtroom.
It was still going on as in F**k You, Pay Me, Joana Nastari howled through history
It was still going before the words me too were preceeded by a hashtag.
It was still going as in Chase Scenes, Ming Hon sprinted away from the masculine shadows haunting her.
It was still going while Hollywood blinkered itself.
It was still going as in dressed., Josie Dale-Jones looked to the audience and said, “Men, we couldn’t have made this show without you.”
It was still going while we all read Cat Person and argued over what actual bad behaviour was.
It was still going as in Unconditional, the mother and daughter duo looked at each other and thought how how the world had changed in the two years they’d been making this.
It was still going while incels grew up and grew angry.
It was still going while Elagoz took that video of white liquid oozing from her mouth.
It was still going while Adam Lazarus had his child and it was still going later when he stood blazing in the theatre with lights blinding his audience.
It was still going while David Ireland wrote the scene where they debate whether Princess Diana would have enjoyed it.
It was still going while I slipped into the bathroom and waited to stop shaking.
This story is not going to get old – not for a long time yet – but the crux of it all is finding ways of talking about it that do it justice. Some shows this fringe really did. Others bored me and felt like a waste of time. And some made me feel sick and want to leave the theatre, saw off my ears and poke out my eyes, chuck pints over the men at the pub who laugh at their friend’s jokes when they’re more harmful than funny, and force every person who has ever sexually assaulted someone to sit in a room and watch each of these shows one after another, over and over again until they get it, until they know each word and movement off by heart, until the sound of the shows starting again makes them want to scratch their own skin off, until they’re sorry, until they say it’s true, until they understand, until they stop.