In 2014, Rebecca Meade wrote an article pouring icy scorn on the arrival of a then-new phenomenon. The Scourge of Relatability introduces the word ‘relatable’, finds its origins in daytime television, and laments the threat it poses to high art (specifically Shakespeare, with his apparently unrelatable themes of ambition, mortality, jealousy &c).
The article’s central thesis is that watching ‘relatable’ work involves passivity (“The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her.”). And also that it’s a form of specifically millennial, self-involved narcissism (“the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.”)
With this in mind, I dived into Vault Festival ready to relate, hard. Week One’s line-up was full of shows that closely represented my experience (millennial, queer, working in the arts) and I was ready to lie back and lazily let the waves of familiar experience lap over my feet, cultivating an expression of insta-ready bliss as I saw my best self reflected back at me.
Only it’s never that simple. Not quite. Playwright Vinay Patel’s hugely illuminating piece on how he responds to reviews mentions, in passing, one response that was particularly hard: “The aforementioned “outlier” that Madani told me about turned out to be probably the worst review I’ve ever had. That it was from The Guardian and written by someone with a not dissimilar background to me made it doubly hard to take.”
Ava Wong Davies’ recent Exeunt review of Ghost Girl // Gwei Mui 鬼妹 explored some similar ideas. She wrote that “I keep looking for the play… The play about British East Asian experience. The play that will make me feel finally, totally represented on a British stage. (And what does that mean? What do I mean when I say represented?).”
When your need to relate to a work is emotional, it’s jolting to find a distorted reflection of yourself (those flattering selfies are a myth). Ava Wong Davies concludes: “It’s no surprise I haven’t found it yet. I’m asking for a lot of things.”
Far from massaging you into passive joy, seeing lives like yours represented on stage puts you in this kind of heightened state: you want to spot the bits that match, the bits that don’t. This one fragile performance bears the weight of all the times you weren’t ‘seen’ (oh, most millennial of words, sorry Rebecca Meade!), the frustrations you have with the way that stories like yours are told (or, equally, aren’t told), and the sense of the invisible wheels and circles of power that whir behind the world of theatre. So-called ‘universal’ stories set at dinner parties or sixteenth-century court don’t come under the same scrutiny: you might have to adjust to new ways of speaking or value systems, but at least you can enjoy them with a degree of detachment.
As a young-ish white middle-class person who works in the arts, there is a LOT of potential relatability for me at Vaults, which is a privilege I’m very aware of. But queer stories still (somehow) aren’t hugely well-represented in theatre, beyond a few cis-white-male-centric big hitters like The Inheritance. I’ve still got this hunger to see the kind of relationships I have reflected on stage, and that hunger means that when I do encounter these stories, I watch them in the most active, thinky, engaged way possible, alert to all their frictions and frustrations and strangenesses. All this is a long preamble to me saying that that the shows I saw on my relatable odyssey at Vault Fest didn’t fill me with a rosy-pink glow of relatable warmth, and I would never want them to.
Holly Beasley immediately won my allegiance by asking, at the outset of her solo show Opal Fruits: hands up who’s tired of semi-autobiographical solo shows performed for middle-class audiences? I’m not, necessarily, but there are a lot of them and it’s refreshing to acknowledge that their beats start to feel familiar after a while: the three spots on stage that their performers often move between, the sheets-as-projection-screens, the airing of artefacts, the baring of souls and bodies.
But if the formula is familiar, it’s also one that still holds audiences rapt. Maybe because of its intimacy. You can’t detach from the person in front of you, or be bored by their emotional rawness, realness and vulnerability. There’s an unspoken contract of connection (however illusory it might be) and breaking that feels like disloyalty, even cruelty. (As an aside: writing conventional reviews of soul-baring autobiographical solo shows is almost impossible – it feels pedantic and uncomfortable, like critiquing a stumbling reading of a heartfelt funeral eulogy or pulling bits of eggshell out of a cake someone’s baked for you out of love).
Opal Fruits starts in solidly relatable (for me) territory. It’s the 90s. There’s a Groovy Chick bedspread (remember her, the round-faced, pastel-hued cartoon girl who did nothing and got everywhere?). They’re renaming Opal Fruits Starburst and Holly Beasley is playing her past self, a scrappy, sweary primary school kid who’s livid about it.
It could feel cosy, but she’s more than ready to draw lines between herself and the audience, to say ‘you are not like me’. Like Bryony Kimmings, Holly Beasley makes her creative process visible. She’s working class, performing for a predominantly middle class audience, and a lot of the show centres on navigating that dynamic. She explores all the rough edges and ethical problems thrown up by her narrative, one built around the true stories of four generations of women in her family, all living on the same housing estate, and protects their identities behind the single name of ‘Opal’. She draws attention to both the uncomfortable emotions that creating the show threw up, and to the problems with mining her nostalgic childhood stories for audience ‘feels’.
She quickly problematises ’90s nostalgia by pointing out that while Topshop flogs throwback sports gear, the women on the council estate she grew up on never stopped wearing this stuff. And Opal Fruits become a central metaphor for the juicy, personal stories of working class adolescence that the audience want from her. I loved the careful structure of withholding those bits, then unleashing them in a warpspeed, eleventh hour torrent of sticky sweetness.
The audience demographic at Vault Festival feels more narrow than at most theatres, and definitely more so than at the Edinburgh Fringe: maybe it’s the flattering dim lighting, but it feels like basically everyone here is in their 20s and early 30s. Most performers are of a similar age, and that means that they’re performing for an implicit audience of their peers. Opal Fruits exploits that dynamic, first by assuming we’ll all share relatable ’90s childhood memories, and then by pulling back, using them to divide us along the same deep, class-based lines that still divide the streets above our heads.
Holly Beasley mentions, early in her performance, that a show about being a working class gay woman is the only show she could get Arts Council funded for – it’s a reminder that the Creative Case for Diversity, as well as being a solidly good thing, also has the potential to push artists into commodifying their identities, into making them necessarily central to the work they make.
Fringe festivals are tightly competitive, and talking about something that no one else is gives you a selling point, however uncomfortable you are about capitalising on it. Juniper and Jules shouldn’t be rare, but it is: very, very few people are writing stories about same-sex relationships between women. Stephanie Martin’s play puts you face-to-face with things that almost never happen on stage, like impressively frank, sexy sex scenes, discussions about the tensions between lesbians and bisexuals, and explorations of what happens when you throw polyamory into the mix.
And what’s lovely to see is how many queer women are here, in couples, entirely ready to relate – because yes, Hollywood throws us the odd lesbian, but they’re generally wearing quaintly fetching historical dress and played by straight women. The performance space is so small that the reactions of all these women around me feel vivid, almost as vivid as everything that’s happening on the tiny stage in the room’s centre. Juniper and Jules meet, flirt, and negotiate the terms of the relationship in intricate detail. This is carefully observed, witty stuff, and it is so completely ‘relatable’ that I end up wondering if lines I hear are somehow cosmically plagiarised from conversations I’ve had or overheard.
I felt represented, but not satisfied – I wanted to know what these women did outside their intense dissections of their relationship, and for it to dive deeper into some of the questions it touches on. Juniper and Jules is never ugly, but it could afford to be, because there’s a real messiness to the attitudes of lesbians towards bisexuals, and vice versa – a messiness that’s reinforced by living in a world that still doesn’t take female sexuality seriously, and assumes that relationships with men are the longed-for default.
I found myself rebelling against the sourness of the we-might-as-well-be-unhappy-together ending, too, which ties into the longstanding trope of depicting relationships between women (as witnessed in plays like The Children’s Hour) as joyless, oppressive, and hard-to-escape. But that’s the problem of relating too hard: you want too much.
I felt less directly invested in Open, an impressively candid autobiographical show by two men in an open relationship, which is maybe why watching it felt less intense. The mood in the room felt different, too, with a much more varied audience. It’s probably a function of the fact that stories about gay men are seen as ‘universal’, and pull in a mixed crowd, whereas stories about queer women seem to primarily attract other queer women (perhaps that’s why Fun Home never landed its West End transfer).
Christopher Adams and Timothy Allsop are telling the story of their own relationship in a way that feels both fascinatingly honest, and protective. There’s evident care in the way they’ve negotiated, together, what to tell and withhold. Couples are sort of programmed to shore up their relationship against the world, to polish the good bits and ham up the bad bits, and that’s doubly true if that relationship is one that sits outside hetero norms. But this pair are thoroughly meticulous in the way they assess their own open relationship. There are pros: the sense of freedom, the excitement, the enthusiastic new bonds they create. And there are cons: the jealousy, the potential for unasked-for emotions to creep in, the fear of STDs. There’s also an overlaid strand of research, including interviews with men they’ve slept with, and revealing statistics (50% of gay male couples are in an open relationship, and it has no impact, positive or negative, on the relationship’s duration).
The stage is scattered with boxes and clumsily assembled paper dolls which represented the many men who they’ve slept with. It’s a ramshackle aesthetic which feels at odds with their carefully stacked narrative approach. But then, their approach has to be careful. In one of the performance’s most revealing section, they point out discussions around legalising gay marriage assumed that marriage would take a certain form. However ethical and considered their open relationship might be, it still falls foul of gay respectability politics – and making it open and visible to heterosexual audiences is a bold, necessary move.
Open asks you to relate to a love story that’s a million miles away from the ones that pop culture still feeds us – ones reliant on monogamy and exclusivity and sex-as-mystical-force. It carefully deploys autobiographical material to let audiences relate to something that might feel impossibly distant. Perhaps they can’t understand sleeping with over 60 other people, but they can understand the push-and-pull awkwardness of a long-term relationship, or the frustration of work-related jealousies.
It’s a reminder that relatability isn’t something that’s passive or narcissistic. The best performances use it as a tool, a device that can be used and strategically withdrawn, like the way that Holly Beasley, in Opal Fruits, is constantly ready to remind audiences that there are some experiences they can’t own.
Still, I don’t want to gloss over the pressures around representation can make relatability into a trap, as well as a tool. When under-represented artists make honest work about their lives they’re filling a big cultural void, yes, but it’s also one that’s not their responsibility to fill. There should be space for them to make work that doesn’t foreground their identities, too. And when they do, you can bet that that work will be made with the same care they devote to representing their lives to heavily invested, hungry audiences who are ready to relate, hard.
For more coverage of 2019’s Vault Festival, read Alice Saville’s piece on Counting Sheep and activist theatre.