The Real World™
I keep hearing this new word: REALNESS. Interestingly, I’ve picked it up from reality tv.
The first place I spotted it was on the Instagram account of Mark Francis from Made In Chelsea, a man so effortlessly aristocratic that he doesn’t even mind admitting that he “once knew someone who owned a sleeping bag”. During his recent trip to New York, Mark Francis posted an instagram of himself in front of a washing machine, eyes closed in serene contemplation, with the caption “laundromat realness”. Aside from instantly adding Laundromat Realness to the ongoing list of future fanzine titles I keep on my phone, I didn’t think much of it at the time.
Then, a week or two later, I started watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and there it was again. Realness. Drag Race is basically Bake Off for queens, in which pro drag queens take on weekly challenges (dress-making, impressionism, lip-synching) on which they are judged by RuPaul, who is often the dullest one there. It is a total JOY, and I’m pretty intent on having at least one 48-hour binge in Vegas with Bianca del Rio before I die. You hear the Drag Race contestants use “realness” after they’ve been given a particularly stressful task to complete. Having to film a 90s-style rap video for example, or create a piece of couture inspired by Downton Abbey. As the time runs down, the judges are waiting, tempers fray and… (sideways glance to camera) “omg realness”.
Mark Francis’s realness is poverty-tourism. Drag Race realness is an indication of panic. “Aaaah shit… reeeealnesssss.” Both exist within the gloriously, willfully pretend world of reality television. Both say “okay this is serious now, this is my serious face”.
Except that’s crap. What they really say is -
"Okay so this, over here, this is me doing real, for real now. What I was just doing might have looked real but actually I have only now switched into 100% full, serious, proper really-real mode.”
"Haaaaaa NOT REALLY! The producer totally just told me to say that!" (winks at camera) "I gotcha!" (finger guns)
I’m thinking about this tonight because I don’t think I like verbatim theatre. Verbatim theatre, if you don’t know, is mathematically like 4 or 5 times more real than normal theatre, because it uses the actual real words from actual real people in actually really real situations. No “realness” here, just pure real reality, yes siree. 100% all real, accept no substitutes.
Tonight’s show was Little Revolution by Alecky Blythe, and it was about the riots in London in 2011, specifically in Hackney, where the proprieter of a looted and vandalised newsagents became a focus for ‘community spirit’ (google it) in the immediate aftermath. If you saw Alecky Blythe’s London Road at the National a couple of years ago, you’ll recognise the same kind of awkward local committee meetings in this, excerpt mercifully without the singing. Same plastic chairs, same rounds of tea.
I have a new friend called Jude. She is a director and she talks brilliantly about realism in the theatre. That’s realism, not realness. I won’t try to paraphrase because it won’t do her justice, but when I was listening to her talk about the kind of theatre she wants to make, I was reminded of Edward II last year, which played on the same stage at the National as London Road, and which was directed by the director of Little Revolution, Joe Hill Gibbins. It was fucking fantastic. Absolutely fucking fantastic. Katie Mitchell-y video stuff, era-melding design, sexy man-kissing, pyro, just a general Kanye-style couldn’t-give-a-fuck attitude to any supposed pressure that may or may not be implicit in a run on the Olivier stage. But the best bit - oh my god the best bit - was about a third, maybe halfway through, when the mini film studio that they’d built like a playhouse in the middle of the stage was broken into its individual sheets of plywood and thrown to the ground, like BAM. BAM. BAM BAM BAM. Like: made you jump, you pussies. Like: yeah we just fucking pushed a fucking castle over, what of it?
When Adler and Gibb was about to open at the Royal Court at the start of the summer, Tim Crouch wrote a nice thing for the Guardian in which he talked about the danger of being “too real” on stage. At the time I raised my eyebrows to it a bit because I misunderstood him. I skim-read and I thought of Edward II then as well. I thought that those walls being pushed over disproved his theory that bits of the set falling down broke the spell for an audience. I realise now that I was confusing two things: the breaking of a spell, and a moment designed to reach out and shake you. Realism.
Joe Hill Gibbins does his best with Little Revolution. The Almeida’s big dock doors, normally hidden by the wings, are thrown open to reveal partying, looting, fighting in the foyer, while a large-ish community cast rush about with beers and flat-screen tellies to quicken the pace. But that realism that my mate Jude talks about never appears. There’s no threat here. There’s no fear or tension. We hear from comedy do-gooders and opinionated bystanders, but never the kids. People throwing tea parties, never throwing bricks. It’s not real (we’re in a theatre in Islington ffs), it’s not realism, it’s not even naturalism because the source material sounds like soap in the actors’ mouths. It’s just realness. Tedious, massaged realness. Rehearsed, yet also somehow a bit stunted, awkward. Mark Francis in front of that washing machine. Laganja Estranga lip-syncing for her life. Alecky Blythe and her dictaphone, rubbernecking from a safe distance. Everyone doing their best serious faces until they’re distracted with a slice of cake. Those who have made themselves available rather than those who have anything to say.