Rarely does a show create such anticipation as Raucous’ The Stick House that opened this week in Bristol. Housed in underground and to date under-used tunnels beneath Brunel’s Bristol Temple Meads train station, the show implicitly promised to be unlike most other theatre-viewing experiences in the city. The subject matter as well – a dark take on an old folk tale with over-tones of feminism by way of Angela Carter’s influence – seemed attractively fail safe, as feminist re-writings of this genre give us the opportunity to indulge in tales and imagery we not-so-secretly love without the accompanying guilt of knowing the message is all wrong.
After over a month of knowing it was going to happen, I arrived with the highly subjective intention of loving it. Indeed I was to some degree already writing the five-star review in my head as I walked down Temple Way. On the surface it seemed so ‘my kind of thing’ – it was in some weird setting, it did away with an audience in chairs facing forward and, oh yes, there was all that Angela Carter shtick too. How could it be anything else but My New Favourite Show? However (and unfortunately) The Stick House was ultimately divergent in its levels of success. On the one hand it was an undeniable masterpiece of theatrical scenery, costume, lighting and the interweaving of projection techniques, but on the other it provided a confused and problematic narrative and assortment of references that at times profoundly jarred with each other.
In the past I have seen shows – most recently Love for Love at the Bristol Old Vic – that don’t offer much in the way of narrative but were so beautifully costumed and designed that ‘storyline’ and ‘dialogue’ seem by-the-by considerations. Had the parts of the narrative in The Stick House not been so openly puzzling that might easily have been the case here. The tunnels, great cryptic vaults under the station, are a distressing and unsettling place to be. Having now gone in them, the thought ‘Oh please let more theatre shows be held down here’ didn’t really arise (save for a great suicide scene in Romeo and Juliet) being as this venue fulfils all the requirements and more of the basic Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter the Victorian Haunted House genre.
From the off projection techniques are at the foreground of the show, with the Young Marietta (Rudy Jewells) running and laughing like a Lula cover girl through the dappled forest light, Alice playing the part of the bad timekeeper bunny. We follow her through to another Lewis Carroll-friendly scene, extra-large chairs and a giant’s table, to witness the pivotal idiot-father-loses-daughter-at-game-of-cards moment, all played out by invisible figures represented only by their hands on the decks. The talent and skill implicit in putting together this performance couldn’t be clearer and remains so throughout. As we process solemnly through, the Stick House itself, a mountainous burrow of firewood constructed from pallets and chairs, and decorated with tally chart notations gouged into the walls, rears up and remains the centre of much of the action. It would be possible to continue describing in detail each piece of scenery – particularly the hillside strewn with real grass and plants – as there was an almost infinite amount of hypnotising aspects to fixate on, but suffice to say that they are there and make the show worth seeing despite what I am about to say next.
The feature of the production that I found, and we’ll employ that over-used word ‘problematic’ to describe it, was the decision to include, seemingly on top of all the modern adaptation of a fairy tale drama, overt references to the Holocaust. This begins with when audience members collect their tickets and are given a little wooden sign to hang round their neck with a name on. Cast your eyes about to the other names and it quickly becomes apparent these are all, most likely, Jewish names of loosely Germanic origin. So now we’re all standing in a group labelled as Jews and about to be escorted into a damp, dark space – anyone feeling uncomfortable? Well if not, or in case you missed the reference, you’re also stamped with a number on your arm. Right. But off we go into the show and kind of forget about the Jewish persecution angle because there’s all this Alice stuff and soft lighting and being careful where you step (in case Brunel’s dog left something behind perhaps). And it remains in the background – or as much as it can do when you have a sign around your neck – until we all get granted temporary custody of a little wicker doll – or straw man, as I guess that’s more the point – with the matching name to your tag. Hence, David Alsberg-as-I continue onwards into the dark together. The conclusion to this part of the production, but not the conclusion of the production, comes when the Hobbledehoy performs a monologue on being a social outcast whom the villages are essentially after with their pitchforks. He has a number, he tells us, and so do we and this means in the morning we will be put on a truck and driven away.
Thus it was that completely inadvertently I spent part of my Friday night pretending to be a Jew about to be shipped off to certain death. I feel about as uncomfortable being a part of a room of – and I make a complete assumption here based on the cultural makeup of Bristol – predominantly non-Jewish people pretending for the sake of an evening’s entertainment to be a Jew in the Holocaust, as I would if someone asked me to impersonate a black African about to be put on a boat in the slave trade in the name of audience participation. As a white British person – the very image of colonialist history – it just seems deeply unsettling and potentially insulting to be appropriating and playing with these issues in an off-hand manner. In the same way that poverty tourism relies on the audience ‘engaging’ with poverty from a position of power and safety, so too does this sort of connecting with historical atrocities with a racial dimension become complicated when done so by people for whom these issues are not a reality in any regard.
And this is also where my essential problem lies, in the ethics of audience participation and education vs. entertainment. If a person goes to the Imperial War Museum or part of the Jewish Museum or even to Auschwitz itself, it is done with firstly their own consent and secondly with the purpose of education (granted this second point can be challenged as perhaps for some people there is a vague element of entertainment or at least offsetting boredom that enters in to their decision to go to a museum). I recently went to see Wattle and Daub’s The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak, a show very interesting in its potential to make the audience change places with that of an 18th century freak show viewer. However, with everything there are degrees of acuteness and whilst freak shows are implicitly cruel and harmful, there is still, to my mind, a world of difference between this and the Holocaust. It may very well be that the production team themselves explored these issues fully and sensitively and perhaps even have been personally effected by them and all of what I say will read as insulting and brash, but if these ideas are being explored in a certain way then that needs to be communicated to the audience, because otherwise it can feel like you’re being co-opted into something, at best, downright odd.
Maybe I am ‘being too sensitive’ or not appreciating that ‘nothing is sacred’ and therefore above being appropriated or deconstructed, but it’s two days later and I still can’t remove it from my mind. Similarly to when I saw Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation, I just kept thinking, is it not: Too Soon? By which I mean there are still people of the generation directly effected by these events who are alive. Imagine for a moment what would happen if, say, an old woman with a real number still tattooed into her arm thought she’d go to the theatre one evening in Bristol in 2015 to see a bit of an off-beat gothicky folk tale show in an unusual setting. Nowhere on any of the publicity, unless I am missing a big beat, does it allude to this element of the show, and sorry to be a killjoy, but there needs to be some element of responsibility towards an audience on behalf of a production team when they’re overtly coercing theatre audiences into being a part of their exploration of these types of issues. We can’t just assume that everything is fair game for being used to produce art that ‘shakes things up a bit’ and that any reaction is a good reaction even if – or especially if – that reaction is one of feeling upset or disturbed. The crux being, of course, that there is no link between fairy tales and the Holocaust, as the systematic murder of 6 million people is not a fairy tale, not even a really dark one. It was real.
On a more simple level, the addition of this material added little to a narrative that in itself offered myriad possibilities for further exploring gender, class and poverty. Especially given the Carter-influence on the piece, there was room for a more complex discussion of feminism than a little revenge fantasy of chopping off the hands of the rapist woodcutter (using his own axe, nonetheless because that will really teach him). We didn’t need to have the idea of the village outcast augmented with a parallel to the plight of European Jews because it stood up as part of the plot by itself. In terms of the dialogue too much time was given over to regaling the audience with tales of women being raped left, right and centre and whilst people may like to claim this to simply be accurate in terms of certain historical periods or genres of storytelling (Hello, Game of Thrones fans) it still meant that essentially we were all here in a dark series of alley ways listening to the baker’s daughter being ‘claimed’ (the verb of choice for fairy tale rape). Like when someone ‘ironically’ tells a racist or sexist joke, it was clear that all the stories were being told with a knowing ‘we wouldn’t say that or believe that now’, and yet here we are, essentially saying it when we could be choosing to say something, anything, else.
I wanted to see more done against this constant theme than just a pair of hands being chopped off or even the walls crumbling. Challenging it more would have removed any possibility of a lot of the language coming across as potentially titillating, which I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended to but definitely contained the possibility of being. Too much space is given to saying what we shouldn’t be saying instead of anything that we could be or should be. I wanted Marietta to really be the heroine who tears this shit down, confronts the villagers, confronts the beast, confronts her own bloody father who got her into this mess in the first place and punches her way out of it not just at the final moment but throughout. She dates a creep for most of it and the only other woman, her mother, in the piece is imprisoned in an asylum. Marietta is surrounded by men who literally mess with her head and despite the final twist I still wanted more. More Mrs. Carter in the Yoncé sense than Angela. In the language of academic feminism, her agency was lacking, floating like redhead Ophelia rather than smashing looms like the Lady of Shalott.
Visually and technically this is a stunning production that shows Raucous are a company not content with settling for the usual brand of theatre making. With a few narrative alterations, most notably the omission or significant altering of the Holocaust theme, this could be a fascinating show, greatly entertaining to audiences and a brilliant up-cycling of a disused space.