I once read in an interview with the poet Luke Kennard a criticism of creative autobiography (in this case, of poets such as Seamus Heaney) that I found interesting. Kennard told the interviewer:
“it troubles me when I feel like a writer is trying to present themselves in the best possible light – it becomes a kind of propaganda of the self… I also felt a bit dismayed that there was a sort of lack of embarrassment.”
The only exception that Kennard finds in Heaney’s work is one poem that ‘involves a sort of inexplicable act of self-sabotage’, which is to be admired.
Something about the comment on embarrassment stuck with me: the things we find embarrassing – genuinely embarrassing, embarrassing because we are to blame, because we look worse – are omitted, and in the wake of that omission much ‘confessional’ writing follows. I want to use this language to discuss Baby Reindeer, the debut play by Edinburgh Comedy Award-winner Richard Gadd. And what interests me about it is its exposure – its intense, highly personal exposure – of the genuinely, non-trivially embarrassing.
exposure, noun – the revelation of something secret, especially something embarrassing or damaging.
Baby Reindeer is about a stalker, ‘Martha’. Specifically, it is about a period of several years in which Gadd was a victim of her stalking. In discussing it, I am going to make some assumptions about the play and its relative lack of fictionality that I would not usually make about a piece of theatre. I want to set out what these assumptions are and why I’m making them. I am assuming that, more-or-less, in essence and in every way that really matters for its public reception, Baby Reindeer’s story is true and that (more-or-less, in essence etc) the script’s autobiographical ‘Richard Gadd’, its ‘I’, is Richard Gadd, and not a heavily fictionalised facsimile of Richard Gadd. Among the reasons I am assuming these things are that:
The notes on the published script make this claim (with details changed to protect those involved, on which more later.)
Baby Reindeer’s ‘I’ is bound up with the most intimate parts of Gadd’s existing public autobiography, including but not limited to him being the victim of grooming and abuse as a teenager, as chronicled and dissected in his past comedy shows and their resultant media coverage.
The sincerity, intensity, factual narration and personal revelation entailed in the show all claim (always implicitly, sometimes explicitly) the space of fact.
So Baby Reindeer is genuinely exposing – personally revealing about events that some part of Gadd wants to keep – has until now kept – private. But here’s the thing that is doubly interesting: it’s not just the embarrassment of being stalked and Gadd’s feelings of humiliation, his lack of control. Or even the violation entailed in being stalked, the intrusion into Gadd’s private life by ‘Martha’ – although Gadd explores all of these. It’s also that he chooses to tell a version of events that looks sharply away from Kennard’s ‘best possible light’, and instead headlong into a light so exposing that it can be hard to look at.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt in the narrative that Gadd is a victim, nothing to excuse – or to ‘even the odds’ with – ‘Martha’. But there are actions, thoughts, moments that are nonetheless hideously unflattering: his own obsession with ‘Martha’; his own complicity in their initial relationship; his own willingness to pull on all the wrong emotional levers, despite recognising Martha’s mental instability from the beginning; his own manipulation of her fantasies; his own – recurring – aggressive behaviour towards her. Gadd depicts an autobiographical ‘I’ who is often irresponsible, sometimes actively cruel.
Gadd’s exposure is obscene, a word of contested but pertinent etymology for what Gadd is doing. Some linguists claim ‘obscene’ comes from Ancient Greek theatre, meaning ‘out-of-scene’ or ‘off-stage’: some things are too taboo, too troubling to show. Ironically, though, it is their ‘off-stage’-ness that perpetuates this taboo; once on-stage, they lose their potency, no longer, the argument goes, technically ‘obscene’. Lawrence Scott, for example, makes such a case in his recent book Picnic Comma Lightning, using it to help map the changing norms of conduct and acceptability in, among other things, the Trump presidency. But the obscene nature of Baby Reindeer would seem to disagree with Scott’s claim. In exposing his own worst behaviour, Gadd does not neutralise it. Not a bit. The opposite is true: it felt to me off-the-scale acidic, all the more obscene where we could see it.
exposure, noun – the state of having no protection from something harmful.
What does it do to a person to recount, every day, in an unrelenting 65-minute monologue, an experience that has traumatised them? Not only that, but to willingly expose themselves to something that has taken difficult, incomplete, psychological work to protect themselves from? And not only THAT, but which exposes their own worst behaviour, their un-mythologised self? As a critic, I have no right nor qualification to judge, and no way of knowing. But as an audience member, I find such questions inescapable.
I don’t think it’s reductive (although obviously it is incomplete), to begin to answer this question with one or two comments about Baby Reindeer’s form. Firstly, this is a highly controlled piece of theatre. Gadd’s script is robust (I particularly liked the description of ‘a stack of papers, Bible-thick’) and the production’s extensive technical facets (Peter Small’s lighting, Keegan Curran’s sound, Ben Bull’s video and Cecilia Carey’s overall design) have the Roundabout’s characteristic slickness. Whilst the play’s topic is not apparently censored or ameliorated, the formal control that Gadd and his team exert must, surely, grant him at least a degree of psychological control over, and containment of, the events he describes.
Part of that control resides in Gadd’s refusal to use the form and structure we might typically associate with ‘comedians-doing-theatre’. Gadd’s performance is relentless from the get-go. He does not ease us in with an introduction, nothing that ‘sits apart’ from the storytelling. Moments of levity or structural comedy are rare, and not used significantly until around the middle of the show. Gadd does not set up a persona to be liked, or use comedy to apologise for the play’s content. He isn’t, in any sense, here to humour us.
exposure, noun – the publicizing of information or an event.
There are two characters in Baby Reindeer – and their two real-life counterparts – who undergo an obscene level of psychological exposure in this show, but so far I have only really discussed one of them. What about the other one? What about ‘Martha’? As depicted, ‘Martha’ is tormented and unstable: others have a right to protection from her; ‘Martha’ needs protection from herself. And, despite Gadd’s ire, his script offers a high degree of sympathy – or perhaps more accurately, pity – towards her.
What would someone seeking to help ‘Martha’ with her demons recommend for her? What interventions would keep others safe from ‘Martha’? Your answers to these questions will rest on your own pre-existing judgements, political and practical. But would anyone’s answer be this: the man with whom she is obsessed, from whom (one would think) she needs separation, withdrawal, distance, directing the fullest, most public possible attention squarely, overwhelmingly at her? Most would probably agree that, as victim, Gadd has a right to tell his story. But what are the limits of this right? And what are the responsibilities of its execution? Gadd commands a powerful platform, especially at the Fringe, where this play speaks to an audience far beyond the Roundabout’s capacity, a conversation that operates via social and traditional media incessantly and on a national scale.
In the pub after the show, I was mulling over these questions with a friend who hadn’t seen it. He asked: would I have had the same concerns if Baby Reindeer were written and performed by a woman about a male stalker? My friend’s hypothetical gender-flipped Baby Reindeer would otherwise follow all the same vectors: the status of the victim and the mental health needs of the perpetrator would all remain the same. Would that other show feel different to this one? And does this help us size up the showmakers’ responsibility towards ‘Martha’? Without the other show, and the full complexities of its story, it seems to me impossible to say. Gender, surely, exerts a weight, an extra dimension in the inequality of power between Gadd-as-performer and Martha-as-subject. In some ways, my friend’s question opens up such issues further rather than leading them to any kind of finality: there are broader imbalances between Gadd and ‘Martha’, none of them easy.
In the quote with which I opened this review, Kennard described himself as ‘troubled’ and ‘dismayed’ by the omission of embarrassment, by the autobiographer’s flattering light. But the hidden and the revealed are troubling in different ways, and to different degrees, and more than one person might risk exposure. Journalistic cliche might have it that Gadd’s new play is unflinching. Not in the slightest. You’ll flinch until your eyes hurt.
Baby Reindeer is on at Summerhall until 25th August. More info and tickets here.