CW: links to two pages which refer to child abuse, in 6th and 15th paragraph.
God Bless the Child by Molly Davies was, pretty remarkably, my first time in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court – and I still need to go back to get a proper sense of how it normally works as a venue. The space had been transformed into a scarily-accurate replica of a primary school classroom – a classroom complete with eight eight-year-old children (of whom more, much more, in a minute), running around and playing together as a pre-show. But it was the wall displays which impressed me: indistinguishable as a whole from those in a real classroom, and filled with work clearly produced by the younger actors themselves, there were just enough awkward details to suggest things were ever-so-slightly askew. One of the discussion boards near me explained the difference between fiction, ‘where we use our imagination’, and non-fiction books. The board nearest me was about Sali Rayner (Amanda Abbington), the author ‘we’ve been learning about this term’. It was full of fun facts which delicately marked out the difference between her and the children in the classroom: she goes on holiday in the Scilly Isles; her favourite ice cream is not just vanilla but Madagascar vanilla. ‘We’ in 4N had been reading Rayner’s Badger Do Best books, read a newspaper article about her, and, crucially, been following her new learning scheme. Evidence of this learning scheme was dotted around the rest of the displays. Once the play started, it became apparent that this scheme dominated every aspect of Ms Newsome’s (Ony Uhiara’s) teaching, with its ‘thinking toadstools and listening lilypads’; its scripted ‘conflict resolution’ centring around a stuffed badger toy; its child-led but teacher-centred approach that ended up banishing the lovely TA Mrs Bradley (Julie Hesmondhalgh).
In pride of place next to the blackboard was a display with cardboard cut-outs of all the books’ characters under the title ‘Badger Do BestTM’. The TM sign was visible nowhere else, never mentioned in the play: I’m reminded of the uncanny place that the same sign holds in the script for ‘The Threat of International Terrorism’ episode in Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life, there but not quite spoken onstage. In fact, the whole slightly-off tone is pure Crimp: at its best, this production called to mind the scripts that became Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies and their immediate antecedent, Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, in which ‘trouble and chaos and underclass and unrest and broken things’, ‘wars and no jobs’ (all Davies’s words) are already played out in the way that we raise and teach our kids.
And yet, for Molly Davies, the trouble comes not so much out of the mouths of babes as out of the mouths of set designers. One of the facts listed about Sali is that she likes writing in her ‘Summer House’ – and, in her acknowledgements to the script, Davies thanks ‘Michael and Peter Cox for building me a place to write in’. She also thanks her director Vicky Featherstone ‘for wanting to put on such a play, and for never being tempted to use puppets’. I assume the implied ending is ‘…instead of real children to play 4N.’ And herein hangs the problem. Both during and after the performance, I found myself wondering whether this production would’ve been better/more interesting/more committed if it had used puppets, or had pulled a Blue Remembered Hills or… Casting real eight-year-olds was the easiest option, and the most troubling.
The performance I saw barely strayed from the published text, which makes no mention of the kids’ involvement in the writing process. All but four of the kids have at least some previous experience in film, television or theatre. They probably needed it. A large chunk of time is given over to the not-quite-allegorical revolution that they stage against Badger Do Best and the teachers who do his bidding; they carry whole scenes, and perform a lot of those Choreographed Interstitial Movement Sequences With The Lights Half-Down(TM much?). The staging demanded a lot of them and – unlike the Court’s Playtime earlier this year, or its Carpet Time storytelling event in conjunction with this production – didn’t give much of sense that it was organised around their ideas and free-form creativity. They didn’t seem to be having much fun: a scene of them dancing around to Don’t Stop Me Now with Hesmondhalgh in the latter half of the play came like a breath of fresh air.
And their performances were… OK. I saw the production at its penultimate performance, and it’s clear that some of them had worked out how to get laughs and succumbed to stagey delivery. They weren’t helped by the script, which was crammed with the kind of endearing grammatical mistakes (‘keeped’, ‘teached’) which – correct me if I’m wrong? – most nine-year-olds have grown out of. I think my problem with coming to a clearer judgement than this about the kids is symptomatic of a lack of clarity, on both Davies’s and Featherstone’s part, about what function the children were fulfilling as theatrical signs. As I watched the young actors jump through hoops just as the characters they represented were made to by the Badger Do Best system, I felt like I had two options. I could marvel at how polished and well-drilled they were, and thus my response was meant to be ‘Hahaha! See! That’s what the Department of Education’s doing to our children, and you like it! Oh, the irony!’ Or I could find myself waiting for the moments when they inevitably slipped up and think ‘Hahaha! See! The kids just can’t cope with this regimentation, and you enjoy it more when they break out!’ For the makers of the play, rehearsing the kids thoroughly was a win-win situation. It smacks of one of Sali’s first lines in the play, upon discovering how far the thinking toadstools are from the listening lilypads: ‘I love that there is a certain amount of flexibility in my system…’
Good political playwrights, to my mind, attend closely to the conditions and human resources behind their plays’ production not in the interest of writerly control, but of creating a social space in which any such control can be risked, suspended, generously shared with the other participants: they model an alternative, perhaps even a utopian, life-world. My Best Play of 2013 placed its onstage choir in a situation halfway between the actors (with whom they were performing, whose script they were following) and the audience (alongside whom they were responding): their evident embarrassment at failing to ‘perform’ successfully, according to the script’s demands, both mirrored and generated the audience’s own failure, to sit back and pass disinterested aesthetic judgement. In my Best ‘New’ Play Staged in a Theatre of 2014, a young actor was employed to portray an (adult-operated) avatar in a pornographic virtual world: the script, always teetering on the edge of making the child say something inappropriate, made the whole tradition of naturalistic theatre seem complicit in the very exploitation of bodies that this play seemed to be condemning. The world acknowledged as ‘the place we have to learn to be’, called for at the end of that play, might be one that demands a changed relationship with theatre as well as with social media.
There was the occasional moment in God Bless the Child when the threatened innocence of the child characters managed to overlap, vertiginously, with a threat to the actors portraying them: in a moment of frustration, Ms Newsome scrawled FUCK OFF on her whiteboard and had to erase it frantically as the children rushed in. But both The Events and The Nether managed, where God Bless the Child didn’t, never to erase the spontaneous, non-diegetic condition of the young or unprepared performer: their failure to generate a perfect illusion, and to produce a coherent paraphrasable message, were not just momentary blips, but sustained conditions of the work. In doing so, these plays highlight a problem I have with Nicholas Ridout’s Stage Fright, Animals and Other Theatrical Problems, a study I’ve been engaging with for my PhD. Ridout makes only passing reference to child performers but, like the other problems of his title – the actor who experiences stage fright or who corpses, momentary eye contact with an actor, the unanticipated movements of an otherwise trained animal – they expose theatre’s ‘wild remainder that escapes semiotic recuperation’. In Ridout’s Marxist analysis, this remainder is the trace of labour relations not subsumed into the sacrificial exchange economy. At the moment when things go wrong, when ‘grace achieved without visible labour’ gives way to ‘the gracelessness that fails’, we get the chance ‘to feel what we feel about work’. For Ridout, these moments of failure are what even mainstream theatre is all about: it is precisely these ‘side-affects’, the recognition that theatre is a ‘machine that sets out to undo itself’, that give the main affects their value.
But Ridout’s thesis has a curiously reactionary streak. For the most part, the vital breakdowns are momentary and immediately repaired, the conventional bourgeois theatre always working to restore itself. Even the avant-garde work of companies like Forced Entertainment and Teatro Giulio Cesare, in which he interprets the failure as more sustained and the pleasure as lying in ‘watching the wheels’ of the theatre-machine ‘spin’ to no avail, the bourgeois theatre and its associated exploitations remain as this pleasure’s necessary other. Although Ridout is right to deny a conception of theatre as ‘the place we go to experience some ahistorical freedom from work’, he also denies theatre’s status as a space in which an entirely alternative, particular, non-capitalist model for freedom can start to be tentatively worked out, here and now, within these historical conditions if in no other – a sensation like the one that I remember getting from The Events. God Bless the Child, on the other hand, serves as a kind of allegorical illustration or doubling-up, of Ridout’s main idea. The play makes me happiest when the kids make mistakes in their performance, because it marks the fulfilment of those moments in the narrative in which they rebel – and this fulfilment works to delineate a political message, the celebration of ‘revolution’ and ‘acts of resistance’, which Featherstone has built the 2014-15 season at the Court around, and which she hopes will ‘demand’ us as an audience ‘to consider a better future’. And yet the emergence of this message is only possible because most of the time the kids are fulfilling the model expected of them as conventional theatrical performers. The exception ultimately proves the rule.
Ridout’s theatre-machine that succeeds in its failing seems to be bound up in the ‘rather tricky dramaturgy of guilt and redemption’ that Jacques Rancière critiques in “The Emancipated Spectator”: ‘theatre is charged with making spectators passive, in opposition to its very essence, which allegedly consists in the self-activity of the community’. If God Bless the Child is taken as a play which straightforwardly advocates resistance to all dogmatic authority figures, it sets itself the paradoxical task of training both its audience and its cast to rebel. Rancière argues that most established models of political theatre remain caught up in this tricky task. Brecht figured his audiences as transitioning from a condition of passivity to one of engaged detachment, Artaud to one of total embodied involvement. Neither engage with the capacity for theatrical audiences to be always already engaged or embodied, to not require training or be easily trained.
Running at 105 minutes without an interval, God Bless the Child felt baggy and overlong, not least because Davies seemed keen to cock her hat to various kinds of political theatre, while recognising that none really resolved the dilemma that she was posing. The first half was propelled by scenes between Ms Newsome and her headteacher Ms Evitt (Nikki Amuka Bird), in which the former tried to point out the failures of the Badger Do Best system while the latter stressed the necessity of keeping it going in order to secure the school’s finances. This nineteenth-century ‘war between two right claims’ approach to political drama doesn’t normally do it for me, but these were by far the clearest scenes in the play: context was filled in, wider relevance was shown, and the children weren’t present to complicate things. But this naturalism was consistently interrupted by scenes featuring the children alone (set, apparently, in an unsupervised classroom – breaking the illusion in and of itself!) in which they ritualistically told each other scary stories and unthreaded the badger soft toy, as if in a kind of tongue-in-cheek at-one-remove homage to a primal Artaudian theatre of sacrifice.
Halfway through the piece, Ms Newsome goes on leave to recuperate from the children’s revolution, never to return, and Sali Rayner herself comes in to pick up the pieces: the divide’s so perfect I was left to wonder why doubling wasn’t used. Abbington’s performance as Rayner, fine on its own terms and often hugely funny, tilted the whole production away from naturalistic debate and towards self-conscious satire. It culminated in a Brechtian final scene: members of the audience were invited into the classroom and we were, for the first time, explicitly addressed as parents who had come to hear the children’s work – only for us to hear, from the mouth of children ‘look[ing] directly at the audience’, that ‘Sali has the government’s voice and the government has your voice. It only does what you let it.’ But if this was a call to unite in the face of our masters, it was a deeply compromised one: earlier in the assembly, Sali’s suggestion that this event would herald ‘a unification of school, community and Badger Do Best’ left me suspicious of any totalising promise for a new society.
It was only with the play’s penultimate appeal to the puppet, in its penultimate scene, that a way out of this tangle of exhausted dramaturgies became visible. Louie, 4N’s main troublemaker, had finished her final personal session with Sali; faced with the threat of spending her ‘school life stuck in a PRU colouring triangles’, she had apparently submitted; as she left the stage, alone, she turned and asked the puppet ‘what would you do differently next time?’, in the words of Sali’s own scripted ‘conflict resolution’ strategy, and listened for its response. Louis’s rebellion had started when she announced that Badger wasn’t real halfway through a resolution session: now, she accepted that the unreal Badger nevertheless had some kind of real value; that structured processes of public self-reflection – if shorn of their fetishised, authoritarian contexts – could still generate productive results. In doing so, Davies’s play finally gestured towards a different set of theatrical practices that it otherwise overlooked: to the questioning re-imaginative process of ‘spect-actorship’ developed by Augustus Boal and still visible in the recent work of Cardboard Citizens, or to the generous ‘sing if you feel like singing’ spirit on which The Events ended. I just wish that, instead of lacerating itself on its own irony, Davies’s play had allowed its actors and audience to participate in such processes themselves.
I wrote most of the above in early January, as the Christmas season was drawing to a close, in my mind if not that of the adverts’. One of the curious features of God Bless the Child was its not-quite-failure to frame its debates in terms of a crisis of public faith. As little as forty years ago, Badger Do Best simply didn’t need to exist: his totalising system of ideas, routines and techniques is a kind of substitute for the prayers, liturgies and moral principles provided by Christianity, and which continues in faith schools to this day. If the ‘Trojan horse’ scandal in Birmingham last spring allowed commentators (rightly) to note our government’s deeply uneven and prejudiced approach to determining which faiths make good educators, one of the lacunae in the coverage (at least as I read it) was any acknowledgement that the Department of Education was using this affair to mask its commitment to fundamentalisms of its own. God Bless the Child wasn’t set in a free school, but its story of a government quietly endorsing a commercial author-advisor to roll out a quietly trademarked educational system, gestured towards the principle according to which such schools work. The aim is not to do away with fundamental beliefs in the name of freedom, but to replace them with a fundamentalism that can be concealed: the kind that erects the temples of our neoliberal cities, while others seek to destroy them.
And this drive for replacement won’t go away. As Gillian Rose taught us, we inhabit a broken middle between law and freedom; we can’t get rid of either, but we need a better way of reconciling them than modern society’s invention of laws disguised as freedom. God Bless the Child did, fleetingly, attempt to think through this. If calling the main character Louie (and allowing her to style herself King) allowed a conspicuous nod to one founding revolution of modernity, Davies also introduced a subtler nod to an earlier one: 4N were studying the Tudors, and Louie piped up that Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church ‘cos he needed to be the important one, not the Pope. He changed all their believes so he could do what he wants’. Did Louie’s revolution, and this play, exhaust themselves because they failed to commit to a Protestant-ism characterised by ongoing protest, one that did not resolve into the authoritarianism of a new law or king, one that was carried along by what Rose calls ‘unrevealed religion’, the belief that is inspired and satisfied by no creed or liturgy but which I nevertheless can’t get rid of? In the final scene, as the children cycled through their revelations of just who speaks with whose voice, with each ventriloquist of Badger Do Best being replaced by another, I was reminded of John Calvin’s worry that ‘every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols’. No voice can remain disembodied; no belief can remain unexposed. How do we live with our inability to get rid of idols?
And how do I talk about any of this without framing it as simple nostalgia for a Christian nation, or a faith-based education system? When I reflect on the (often deeply shameful) inadequacies of my old Catholic school, I’m still grateful that I went to a faith school. But is it not time to imagine a different kind of “faith school”, one which is just that – which places at its heart the principle that forms of irrational faith cannot be eradicated, that, like Badger Do Best, they hover between fiction and non-fiction; and that a school is the place where our faiths are undermined and wrecked, re-assessed and strengthened by each other. Such a school might be pluralist, but would not be secular. It would set in place an architecture of rules and guidelines and puppet-idols that always already say “You are doing this, even though you know it will not do. Reform me, wreck me and destroy me if you have to, and not in the name of showing how flexible the system is but out of an insistence that the system is wrong, that only an abandonment of systems allows me to claim commitment to someone who abandoned power”. And yet it remains the rules that say this…
My research has recently been informed by Catherine Pickstock’s “Liturgy, Art and Politics”, a wide-ranging and persuasive argument for the ‘political significance’ of liturgy as a site of resistance – ‘a far more plausible site of resistance than art’, even – against the baroque reifications and unwarranted authorities that characterise modernity. It does so by allowing the most immanent details of lived, private experience to gesture towards a transcendental shared ideal. Crucially, it allows for a vision beyond society as it currently exists, but allows that transformative vision to emerge from within the heart of society, rather than from ‘the margins and the semi-excluded’ which characterise most contemporary discourses of “critique”. As much as I admire her argument, and despite her claims for liturgy’s capacity to host its own excess and its refusal to be merely functional, Pickstock occasionally seems to fall into a vision of liturgy as a version of Sali Rayner’s supremely flexible system, one that already anticipates every need we can imagine (particularly given her focus on largely Catholic models). She notes that ‘the universal’ in Christianity is ‘only accessible through the various, specific, time-bound traditional customary paths’ – but, in order to work out what those paths are in all their variety, specificity and time-boundedness, we need to be open to error, to lurching from now-inadequate paths to only-slightly-less-inadequate ones, to heading off into the margins who aren’t satisfied by the pre-existing pattern. For Pickstock’s model of liturgy to come about, do we need to articulate and incorporate the ‘negative liturgies’ that bring such liturgy into being? I take the term from Andrew Edgar’s intriguing essay on sport and liturgy, who in turn takes the idea of negative from the wrong path of Adorno’s negative dialectics. Theatre might be another example of a negative liturgy, and so might our schools and universities – and only when we find ways to reimagine them on those terms can are children be called blessed.