By Ian Peek
We Want You To Watch ended its UK tour with 2 nights at the Lowry Studio in Salford. The play gives vivid focus to the issue of pornography, and is commissioned by The National Theatre & supported using public funding from the Arts Council England.
In the production’s own words: “This is about pornography. This is an interview. This is an intervention. This is an interrogation. We’re recording now. We want to pull its plug out. We want to stop its heartbeat. We want to blow its brains out and begin again. We know exactly what we’re doing. We’re not stupid.”
If the two sides of a debate about porn are simplified to ‘for’ and ‘against’, you’ll have no trouble identifying which side the play argues for. That said; it’ll never stand accused of simplifying the issue.
Waiting for the play to begin, the backdrop displays a contorted woman’s face, cast poised to emerge from the open ‘O’ of her screaming mouth. A small scaffold supports a plank laden with tins of Warhol’s ‘Campbell’s Condensed Soup’ re-branded ‘Condensed Sex’ for the occasion. Cans accumulate by tin, pack and pallet-load as the play unfolds.
The play is confrontational and challenging from the outset. The initial scene comprises a murder investigation conducted by two confident femme fatale interrogators already addressing the culprit. Immediately, you’re introduced to a regular ‘rape porn’ user, visceral descriptions of genital and bodily mutilation, and a nauseating walk through of how a murderer would induce anal prolapse on their living victim. It’s quickly clear We Want You To Watch isn’t about to take a softly-softly approach to addressing larger issues and concerns.
Whilst the opening risks being heavy-handed as much as hard-hitting, it marks a commitment not to shy from tackling extremes. This approach is maintained throughout the performance, which commands an impressive power to shock in a world increasingly desensitised to this.
You will feel discomfort, you will want to look away; you will experience shame and revulsion. One aspect that gives the performance its impact is your inability to skip-to-the end, press pause or otherwise avoid unpalatable imagery. You’re forced to engage with its existence and can’t retreat to a safer cocoon or draw your own lines of acceptable content. You’re no longer free to choose what you watch (or ignore what surrounds you).
Despite much of the material being intentionally over the top, one of the strengths of the production is that it manages to avoid using gratuity in service of a sensationalist angle. Rather, the discomfort forces you to engage with issues on appropriate terms, and the extremity is a necessary tool in addressing the topical content rather than a cheap reaction-provoking tactic.
While the play begins (and never fully backs away from) initial voices satisfied with the inherent wrongness of porn, other voices are meaningfully articulated throughout. Alternate perspectives highlight and ridicule the problems of simplified and one-sided views, allowing contrasts to be drawn over several scenes and situations.
Changes in pace, tone, and theatrical medium abound throughout the performance, engaging and disturbing from a variety of angles. Points are made in seriousness and humour. They are communicated through monologues, mime, character dialogue, direct audience address, choreographed music and dance, and manage to include some of the most legitimate and satisfying uses of “interpretive dance” yet seen in theatre (sometimes involving the Queen).
We Want You To Watch does not content itself with unambitious approaches. It lowers itself and wallows in vulgarity, while simultaneously displaying an artistic maturity that transcends much of the content, confident to address the issue boldly and on its own terms.
It acknowledges the unsatisfactory nature of some of its answers and the inadequacy present in attempting to tackle the issue. In holding a mirror up to its own failings, it turns it onto wider societal ones, still managing to do so playfully alongside frenetic dance numbers. It is self-aware, but doesn’t dwell on its faults.
It’s an uneasy recommendation. It’s something you want people to see, but feel conflicted and responsible for making them experience. That’s partly the point, and perhaps entirely how it should make you feel. It is grotesquely wonderful.
Ian is an MA Creative Writing Student. He loves words and trying to arrange them into an agreeable order. He wanted to watch, and sometimes wants to unsee. You can follow him on Twitter @IanPeek_Write