27 March 2018
Florence Bell responds to can't stop can't stop
A theory: people want to watch plays and performances about disasters. We want People, Places and Things, we want David Hare plays about Iraq, personal stories wrapped up in wider this-has-been-in-the-news-lately issues. We want ground-shaking, lucky-to-be-alive stories of suffering, or devastating final scenes where half the cast is wiped out in one fell blow.
can’t stop can’t stop, I would argue, delivers none of these things. It’s distressing but the suffering doesn’t lie in the performance, it lies in reality. The symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) that Sam Ross enumerates to the audience don’t go away at the curtain call. They stick. The spark that makes the show work is its unstoppableness, the fact that the motor never stops going. The theatricality of the show feels more like an afterthought. Like a lecture, the show exists and defines itself in its language and displays rather than in a sense of being dramatic. It’s a blurry mix of words and experiences that fly around an oppressively tight circle.
It still has its own distinct style. Small objects that trigger Ross’ convulsions are the centrepiece. It is sketchy and doodle-like, intentionally left rough round the edges. It suits the show, the script of which seems to shift and change between shows (if there even is a script).
Because the performance feels so real and so educational, there are points at which it seems to hit a stasis in tone. It still manages to transcend to something more though, in that the reality we are confronted with, Ross’ disorder, is geared to become more and more distressing as the performance goes on. This is where the line between reality and performance becomes unclear, because as Ross was performing/enacting/reenacting/demonstrating his compulsions to the audience, I felt so unsure about whether he was performing or not. I still haven’t decided. I don’t really want to decide. There is a structure that balances the show out slightly, and an attempt to be dramatic, but, without wanting to infringe on Ross’ right to talk about his own, very real, suffering, this piece of theatre feels too live to be theatre. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I’m certain Ross was genuinely having compulsions rather than performing them.
The fact that the reality supersedes the show’s structure very quickly gives us nothing to retreat into. There are attempts to introduce a rapport with the audience, via some scripted semi-jokey comments: "2, 4, 6, 8 – there must be at least a hundred people in here." I don’t think it’s meant to sound scripted yet it does. Attempts to divert the tone away from the reality always point back to the reality, because they simply don’t strike the right tone of realness that is of course actually unreal.
There are, then, a couple of levels on which can’t stop can’t stop tries to function dramatically.
1) As a realistic, demonstrative, educational piece, a sort of disclosure.
2) On a theatrical level, in terms of the show’s structure, with phone calls and panic attacks interrupting the action, with devices like movement and dialogue.
3) On a more basic dramatic level, that most performances function on; the audience being able to see and hear the action or most of the action and being able to understand.
I don’t think can’t stop can’t stop always succeeds at 3). Ross often talks too fast for us to be able to catch every word, and he spends long sections of the show sat with his back towards the same section of the audience. And then 2) ultimately ends up being a subset of 1). The props Ross uses might technically be props, but they also seem to be the objects that genuinely trigger Ross’ convulsions.
But, as Ross reminds the audience at the end, his purpose is mostly 1), to educate. It succeeds on this level but I can’t help but feel slightly scared by it too. I want to be receptive of the work and supportive of what Ross is trying to do, but Ross’ convulsions feel more like an emergency than a piece of theatre. Of course, that is the reality of his life. But turning that in to a performance is a complex task and I don’t think it’s been totally pulled off. I didn’t feel like I had seen a great piece of performance or that I had been educated in the right way* about OCD.
*I wasn’t educated about Ross’ disorder on the terms I felt comfortable with – even if Ross is comfortable with it. Is that ignorant of me? Probably.
Photo credit: Giulia Delprato