22 April 2019
Liam Rees sees right through the metric shit-tonne of glitter
This is the hill I’m prepared to die on: TANYA is the smartest and most misunderstood show at NSDF.
But isn’t it just a bunch of bougie yahs being awful in a vain attempt to fill the void that is their meaningless, parasitic existence? Like Made in Chelsea trying to do Chekhov? Yes. It is. And it’s hilarious once you stop taking the production at face value. The dramaturgical game at play in TANYA is how long it takes for the audience to realise that they're allowed to laugh at these foppish, vacuous, but dangerous idiots. Once you get over the bullshit classist, respectful deference to our so-called betters that’s ingrained in us you quickly realise that they are sad, empty people. All I could do was laugh at them and our culture that idolizes them. The experience of watching TANYA is the experience of different audience members having that realization at different points – a dynamic barometer for how much bullshit we’re willing to accept.
The Rob-Icke-ripping-off-Ivo-Van-Hove aesthetic brings to mind all these serious, contemporary attempts to make the classics relevant again that upper-middle class audiences at the Almeida and the National seem to lap up. Coupled with Flora Wilson Brown’s script that pushes bougie insufferability to the limit, it’s easy to see why some audience members dismissed it early on (my personal favourite was 'like a Jack Wills advert trying to do Hedda Gabler at the Almeida'). However there’s one key decision from director, Jimmy Dougan, that undercuts the initial layer of pretension: a metric shit-tonne of golden glitter and confetti. This visual metaphor really does explain the whole show – nothing in this world is what presents itself as. A romantic conversation about national identity is a front to gaslight Tanya. At one point Eugene even chastises Tanya for wearing glitter on a night out because it’s literally killing the planet. Eugene is not a romantic idol, he’s a manipulative predator. Nothing he says is to be believed. All that glitters is not gold. You can’t polish a turd you can definitely spray paint it gold. It’s not 'a story about being young and in love' – it’s about the destruction that ensues from being disgustingly privileged and entitled.
I maintain that TANYA is the smartest show at the festival, asking the audience to decode what they’re presented with and utterly reject it, but I also think it’s somewhat shallow. Once the intellectual game is over and that central realization clicks there’s little more to take home than 'Rich people are awful’. I can get behind that but I wish there was more substance to it – annoyingly in keeping with the characters.
However there’s more keeping me from thinking TANYA is a work of unmitigated genius. Immediately after the show I said that it’s best appreciated as a dark satire. When asked what it satirizes I maintained that it exposes the vapidity of the ruling class’s existence and that it invites us to laugh at them rather than taking them seriously. They’ve done nothing to deserve that respect. But is satire still satire if it’s not understood as such? In the gap between seeing TANYA and finishing this response I’ve revisited an excellent video essay all about the limits of satire and artistic critique. In it Lindsay Ellis points out that a serious artistic critique of neo-Nazism like American History X can easily be appropriated by the very neo-Nazis that it sought to criticize. Whereas no one’s tried to appropriate The Producers as a piece of Nazi propaganda because it never takes the Nazis seriously. Inevitably my personal politics influenced my reading of TANYA as a satire but it could be (and has been) stripped of any such critique when placed in front of a different audience. So what does the piece ultimately say? Well, maybe how you interpret the production is more important and revealing than the production itself.
Photo credit: Beatrice Debney