by Sam Spencer
When dealing with a highly visual form like film, the greatest filmmakers have aways known that despite infinite progress in computer graphics, what is not shown is far more threatening, far more terrifying, than what is shown. Had we seen the knife entering a prosthetic version of the torso of Janet Leigh in the infamous Psycho scene, audiences would now roll their eyes at what had become a dated and unrealistic bit of special effects trickery, as campy as early green screen work or the polystyrene-festooned aliens of 60s sci-fi.
However, no-one seems to have told this to recent directors of Shakespeare tragedies in London, with both the Globe’s Titus Andronicus and the National’s King Lear probably leading to red food coloring shortages in and around the South Bank. The reviews have been good, but when I went to see them both, many in the audiences could only give faint praise: that is, they fainted. At one point, as a macabre ravished Lavinia kneels down to pick up the dismembered hand of her father, retching blood all the while, the whole front row did an involuntary sway in unison, and I thought we were going to see the biggest theatrical casualty since Viva Forever.
However, there is a history within London’s major theatrical institutions of very bloody Tituses. Peter Hall’s 1950s version, the director boasted, once saw a third of the audience needing the smelling salts. Such a history, in fact, that the motives behind it have largely gone unquestioned. Admittedly, Titus is certainly a bloody play, almost grand guignol in its various beheadings, severings and acts of cannibalism, but this does not mean that this spate of blood-splattered versions does not need to be scrutinised. For the rest of this piece then, I want to raise some questions about the directorial choice to show violence on stage in terms of the high/low culture divide it could be said to bridge, as well as considering its relationship to real violence in performance art. Obviously, entire books could and have been written about this, so here are some brief notes aimed to begin a wider discussion – to use a fittingly cinematic violence metaphor, I see these notes as the first drunkenly thrown punch that starts off the bar brawl.
So why are we seeing a resurgence of violent Shakespeare? Many would perhaps argue that such violence is essential to instill a sense of relevance and realism to these plays in our modern age of 24 hour news coverage from war torn countries, a place where what previously seemed as violence that happens only in plays is on the front page on newspapers daily (look, for example, at the tragedy of James Foley). This is especially true of the recent Lear, with Sam Mendes setting the play in a decidedly modern banana republic. However, is this the tropical dictatorship of the CNN news feed, or a sister kingdom of psychopaths in power to that of Sam Mendes’ last film project, the acclaimed Bond film Skyfall?
My uncertainty here is crucial. Do we wince at the gouging of Gloucester’s eyes, done with a corkscrew and an squirting ark of fake blood because we believe in its inherent reality – that is, believe that this is exactly the sort of cruel tortures seen under a dictatorship, or do we recoil with a secret glee at the pulp violence, as we do when Uma Thurman pulls out Daryl Hannah’s remaining eyeball in the second Kill Bill? Perhaps it is unfortunate that Lear comes straight after Skyfall in Mendes’ career, but to me his staging of the play, although fantastic, seems drenched in a Bond world of violence. Although since given a grittier reboot, Bondworld is a place where violence is just as likely to come from a man with metal teeth or a claw for a hand as it is from a Guantanamo style torturing. It is a place where real political violence is indistinguishably mixed with cartoon violence. However, this cartoon violence is so removed from reality that it gives all the other violence in the films an air of unreality about it too. This, for me, is the essence of popular culture violence, as seen in the Bond films, Kill Bill and, to its discredit, the Mendes Lear: that any satire or comment the violence is making is offset by cartoonish, people-pleasing violence.
That said, is such a thing as a hierarchy of violence possible? Can violence be judged on its aesthetic merits when it in its essence something potentially feral, artless, barbaric? Let’s continue by defining a counter-example to what I am defining as ‘low art’ violence in an attempt to create a possible spectrum. If violence is inherently artless (discounting for now the balletic routines of the martial art film), then perhaps ‘high art’ violence is an unseen violence, a potential for violence. If ‘low art’ violence is unreal violence, then perhaps ‘high-art’ violence is the very real. Under these admittedly underdeveloped terms then, a perfect model for what ‘high art’ violence could be is Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0.
This 1974 piece, in which Abramović placed 72 items on a table and allowed the public to use any of them on her. Here we see violence stripped back to its most minimalist. Two bodies, that of Abramović and that of a gallery visitor holding an object. The potential for violence; as knives, thorns and a loaded gun wait to be used. Abramović herself recounts that an initially tame audience become wilder and wilder. People begin to push rose thorns into her flesh, to cut her neck, to point the gun at the artist standing passive. They can escape in the violence whilst it is happening, with Abramovic registering no emotion, but she recounts that once the performance was over and the artist begins to assert her own personality the audience that inflicted such wounds on her could not engage with her or even be in the same room as her. The piece then forces the audience to consider themselves as culpable, their own glee at violence lying as exposed and bare as the naked Abramovic in the Belgrade gallery of Rhythm 0. High art at its finest, a piece that forces us to consider our basest human emotions rather than experience a schadenfreude at Gloucester’s Oedipal fate.
These are our parameters for a hierarchy of violence, and hopefully a more developed understanding can be reached as real news violence and film violence become even more closely intertwined and we find ourselves as a species more and more desperate for a Rhythm 0 moment, laying bare our relationship to violence in all its forms.
Samuel Spencer is a recent English Literature graduate and freelance writer. He writes mostly on pop music and culture, with the aim to positively reappropriate the words that have been used against him his entire life – ‘camp’, ‘feminine’, ‘gay’ into a critical apparatus he calls ‘trashthetics’. In practice, this means listening and dancing to more Madonna than any other critic working today. His other work is collected here.