This is not theatre, Hugh Hughes opens his latest show by carefully explaining. We might be fooled by the fact that we are in the Pit at the Barbican, arrayed in a bank of raked seating facing what is undeniably a stage, but Hughes is anxious for us to manage our expectations. There are no fantastical narratives or theatrical trickery at play here; these are just simple memories recounted by ordinary people, accompanied on stage by a fully visible musician and technician. The emphasis, above all, is on honesty.
But of course Hugh Hughes isn’t real. The affable, endearingly naive Welshman at the centre of Stories from an Invisible Town is the fictional alter ego of Shôn Dale-Jones, artistic director of theatre company Hoipolloi. The show in question distils the universal idiosyncrasies of family life, a potent cocktail of memories that intoxicates us with reminiscences of our own, through a semblance of honesty cloaked in performative lies. The only way in which Dale-Jones can get away with such disarming naivety and such charmingly unblinking confrontations with the truth of family life, it would seem, is through a fictional lens.
This is arguably what all representational theatre does: conjure an imaginary realm in which to debate the very stuff of human existence. Yet there seem to be more layers at play in a persona such as the one adopted by Dale-Jones, precisely because it is constructed along the fault-lines between fiction and reality. As Dale-Jones has acknowledged, there are elements of himself and his family within the character and personal narrative of Hughes, but these are one step removed from autobiography. Because the persona persists after the house lights come up, shaking our hand on the way out and even providing us with social media updates, Hughes is not quite character or performer, not quite fake or real.
The startling pose of naivety struck by Dale-Jones through the persona of Hughes shares some similarities with Tammy WhyNot, the country singer turned lesbian performance artist invented by artist and academic Lois Weaver. This performative alter ego and research tool enables the kind of simple curiosity – and in turn the kind of answers – that any usual encounter would not permit. Gathering research under the banner of “What Tammy Needs to Know”, Weaver’s tactic is to ask the naive, unadorned and seemingly stupid questions that would normally remain unspoken, but that actually prod at some of the issues at the heart of class, education, gender and culture.
Both personas are deceptively simple, putting audiences at ease through a certain assumed ignorance about the ways of the world. Individuals who interact with Tammy WhyNot feel compelled by the artlessness of her questions to provide her with answers; Hugh Hughes’ childlike enthusiasm for gathering his family memories encourages audience members to take a step backwards into their own childhoods. There’s something oddly reassuring about such characters, despite the fact that we watch or interact with them in the knowledge that they are just that – characters. For the most part, we’re in the know (though I did hear a lovely story about the family member of a friend who was happily convinced for over a year that Hughes was a real person, then meeting with crushing disappointment as he was revealed to be a fabrication).
But does it matter whether or not Hugh Hughes or Tammy WhyNot are “real”? This seems to be the question that is really at stake in our interactions with such personas and our response to the impressions they transmit. In one sense, the answer to that question is a resounding no. Wrapping something in a lie, particularly in a theatre or performance context, does not necessarily negate the truth at its centre, and may further function as a tactic for subverting the very idea of definitive truths; there’s your truth, or my truth, or any other number of equally valid perspectives on the world. Understood in this way, a persona is no more of a lie than the performative masks that we all effortlessly adopt in our everyday encounters.
In another sense, however, the shrugging on of a persona is significant to the way in which we experience this work. At the core of Weaver’s asserted research aim in creating and inhabiting the character of Tammy WhyNot is experimentation with the idea of the performative persona as “a means of facilitating public engagement”. Just as we accept naive comments from Hughes with more ease than we would do from Dale-Jones, Tammy’s aura of open ignorance invites a revealing level of engagement that might otherwise be shied away from. There is something safe, maybe, about an interaction in which the rules are clearly outlined – in which we are not negotiating the blurred, unsettling boundary between character and actor, but are instead dealing with a persona that represents neither character in a traditional sense nor the unmasked performer.
Perhaps, rather than facilitating the “authentic” face-to-face encounter that so much work currently seeks, such personas are instead about the raising of the mask. The bare face, or the painted face that purports to bareness, involves too great a level of vulnerability, inviting the possibility that we might have to engage in the exposing activity of meeting unshielded eyes. When the performative mask is there for all to see, however, the risk of exposure diminishes and the unthreatening opportunity to lower our own mask is suddenly a real one.