Theatre and image in an age of emergencies
Author: Sam Haddow

This book is about the relationship between emergencies and the spectator. In the early twenty-first century, ‘emergencies’ are commonplace in the newsgathering and political institutions of western industrial democracies. From terrorism to global warming, the refugee crisis to general elections, the spectator is bombarded with narratives that seek to suspend the criteria of everyday life in order to address perpetual ‘exceptional’ threats. I argue that repeated exposure to these narratives through the apparatuses of contemporary technology creates a ‘precarious spectatorship’, where the spectator’s ability to rationalise herself, or her relationship with the object of her spectatorship, is compromised.

In terms of the ways in which emergencies are dramatized for the spectator, this book focuses primarily on the framing and distribution of images. Because images are cheap and easy to produce; because they can be quickly and limitlessly distributed; because they are instantly affective and because they can be easily overwritten, they have become a pre-eminent tool in the performance of emergencies. In response to this, the book proposes theatrical performance as a space in which the relationship between the spectator and emergencies may be critically examined, and I analyse a range of contemporary theatrical pieces which challenge the spectator under the aegis of emergencies.

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Emergencies and spectatorship
Sam Haddow

The introduction contextualises the book through analysis of political rhetoric which is designed to produce a sense of emergency. Building on recent theories from geography, I offer a definition of ‘emergency’ as the projection of a future crisis which demands compliance to a defined set of common practices (protocol). I define my key terms ‘theatre’, ‘spectator’ and ‘image’, and undertake a brief case study into the ways in which theatre might push beyond the ‘representable’ – which is how, I argue, emergencies are produced and maintained at the level of the image.

in Precarious spectatorship
Sam Haddow

This chapter explores the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015 and beyond, in a discussion of the relationship between the spectator and the ‘other’. Drawing on two theatrical case studies – Vanishing Point’s (2016) The Destroyed Room and Zinnie Harris’ (2015) How to Hold Your Breath, I suggest ways in which live performance can respond to the erasure of humanity that is often practised upon the refugee in the circulation of images. One chief strategy is through storytelling, an art-form that relies upon personal interaction and privileges experience over information. This chapter also applies Bernard Stiegler’s theory of ‘spiritual misery’ to performance analysis, and concludes with a discussion of the dangers of building a visual economy on the destruction of the face of the other.

in Precarious spectatorship
Sam Haddow

Chapter 4 appraises both the destruction of the exterior and the ‘empty centre’ that I theorize as hallmarks of emergencies, proposing a survey of some recent theatrical texts in which these ideas have been tackled. The intention here is to illustrate some ways in which theatre, with its partialities, contingencies and failures, can offer spaces of potential identification or resistance to this process. I begin with the concept of a ‘rigged game’. This idea, which underpins Forced Entertainment’s Real Magic, Ontroerend Goed’s £¥€$ (LIES) 2 Magpies’ Last Resort and Theatre Conspiracy’s Foreign Radical, offers a way of conceptualising through performance the restrictive limits imposed by emergency protocol. Addressing each in turn, I explore the ways in which they create theatrical languages to challenge the orthodoxies latent within emergencies and, importantly, destabilize the notion that ‘there is no other choice’. My second cluster of productions are Kieran Hurley’s Heads Up, Andy Duffy’s Crash and Mark Thomas’ The Red Shed, which are shows that borrow conventions from storytelling and dramatise the imperative of retaining a sense of historical context to the present moment, and the consequences of what can happen if this relationship is overwritten.

in Precarious spectatorship
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Sam Haddow

Chapter 1 conducts an in-depth discussion of the ways in which Islamic State (IS) murder propaganda was produced and distributed in the UK, in the years 2014–2015. By focussing on the careful construction of personas by both Islamic State and the UK government, my aim is to demonstrate the ways in which emergencies may be packaged and deployed in order to inspire specific responses in targeted audiences. On the one hand, IS used their technological fluency to ventriloquise their victims in order to demonstrate absolute mastery and justification for their military incursions, inspiring potential converts around the world. On the other, the British press carefully packaged ‘Jihadi John’ as a monster, in order to stoke public anxiety about IS and draw support for military reprisals. In this chapter I begin a discussion of the image, and the ways in which the disconnect between the image and its subject may be exploited in order to produce affective responses within the spectator.

in Precarious spectatorship
Sam Haddow

This chapter begins with a discussion of tragedy, in particular the figure of the ‘scapegoat’ who must be sacrificed in order for the polis to reproduce itself. In the early twenty-first century, I argue that this figure has been replaced with images, and that the world they bring in to being is one of things, rather than subjects. The extremities of this process lead spectators to make images out of themselves which, I argue, is suicidal. I develop this argument through analysis of the rhetoric of Donald Trump, and examples taken from events between 2016 and 2018 where images of suicide have been circulated on the Internet. Drawing the conversation back into tragedy I conclude with an examination of Alice Birch’s (2017) play Anatomy of a Suicide, which I argue recasts the tragic hero in the light of a society that has become suicidal.

in Precarious spectatorship
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Sam Haddow

The Epilogue locates my research within my own experiences of being exposed to images of violence, contextualising this study and offering some thoughts on a personal experience of precarious spectatorship. I also discuss the work of Antonin Artaud, one of the key critical voices in theatre to warn against the violence of representation, and conclude with an analysis of Alice Birch’s (2018) La Maladie de la Mort, a play that addresses the suicidal consequences of a world predicated on images.

in Precarious spectatorship