Can I start again?
25 March 2018
Ava Davies attempts to untie with the knottiness of can't stop can't stop
It’s worth noting that at the end of Sam Ross’ performance, amidst a stage littered with feathers and scraps of paper and the detritus of his illness, he stands up and tells us that fundamentally, what he’s trying to do with this show (performance? How much is performance? unclear) is educate us. That changes things, I think, fairly significantly. It shifts the goalposts one inch to the right in a way that does end up being pretty seismic in how we are meant to look at and critique this show.
I didn’t – I don’t really want to review it. I came out and immediately said to a fellow Noises Off critic that I didn’t want to go near it. Too personal. It’s about therapy, partly, theatre as therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as performance. How do I begin to separate the two? I’m not touching it with a bargepole. I think about these things a lot in my own work – I write plays about race and I feel myself Preaching – so I Get it, to some extent I Get what Ross is doing and writing a review on his show would require me to think about the way in which I make work, and to be honest, I don’t really want to do that. But then I do also feel compelled to confront the knottiness of it all. My responsibility here – the one I’ve given myself – is to think about how it made me feel, how it made the audience feel, and how it worked against the parameters it set itself.
So the show is intended to be educational, first and foremost. I think there are various planes on which to judge it: first, how well does it educate? Do we, an assumedly uninformed audience, come away with greater understanding and greater empathy for those who suffer from obsessive complusive disorder (OCD)? Do we feel compelled to educate ourselves further, do we feel compelled to Make A Change? How well does it work as a piece of social activism? But then also – because of the very fact that it’s here, being performed at NSDF in front of audiences full of makers and critics – we have to ask how much it works as a piece of performance, as a piece of drama, as churlish as that can feel. And of course, can theatre be both of these things at the same time? (It can.)
I think can’t stop can’t stop needs a dramaturg. Maybe it had one in the making process, but there’s no obvious attribution in the programme. The way Ross goes round and round the circle he’s made out of the audience seating is indicative of the way his mind whirs, but the climactic moments of the piece Need something else before them, more of a sense of build up. The imagined scenes with a CBT therapist who pushes him to sit with his anxieties, to roll around in them, and the (real? Not real?) cycle of compulsions he becomes engulfed in are horrific, but the simple, practical explanations of OCD he peppers the show with, while refreshingly matter of fact at first, begin to drag it into inertia and dull the potency of those moments.
(I feel sick even saying that, it just feels grossly unfair. But if you put work onstage then it has to be open to discussion and criticism – theatre is a Dialogue, it’s not just a soapbox you can stand on. It’s hard. I struggle with it constantly. I admire Ross so much for putting this onstage and grappling with it.)
I understand the impulse and the pressure, when your story is not represented, to fit absolutely Everything into your one-hour show but it doesn’t – quite – work. There’s an overload of information and my head began to feel fuzzy, woolly at the mass of knowledge just being Told to me. I didn’t want to feel like that but I could feel myself tuning out, dropping out despite myself. The pragmatism overwhelms and numbs, as much as it provides respite.
Educational theatre can and should make room to Explain, but it should also be able to Show in lieu of Telling. Because that’s where the theatre comes in, right? When you educate you have to engage; the worst lectures are the ones where your professor just talks at you, where his passion project, the thing he’s spent his entire life on becomes increasingly impenetrable to a hall full of hungover students. That’s not what can’t stop can’t stop is like – at points it is deeply moving and innovative – but maybe it tries to fit in too much. It could be so potent, so powerful, but it’s not quite there.
How do you make a show about yourself and your intensely personal and subjective experiences with an illness that affects 1 per cent of the UK’s population? How do you do it without alienating the audience who are simultaneously your students and your therapist? There is this tension constantly throughout can’t stop can’t stop that isn’t fully expanded upon. Ross never really resolves it, but I think that’s all right. It requires discussion and debate.
I wanted to like it more, but “like” is probably the wrong word. I wanted to Feel More, but instead I felt increasingly distant from the whole thing, while simultaneously feeling these deep wells of sympathy for this young man onstage, looking for connection from his audience, waiting to get off the NHS waiting list.
Photo credit: Giulia Delprato