Can we talk about #metoo plays? As someone interested in feminist work, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of them this fringe. These thoughts have been brewing across several shows and it’s perhaps unfair that I should take it out on PowerPlay’s The Empty Chair, which is a student show (although it is not marketed as such) and should perhaps be given the benefit of the doubt. Like Eve Allin, I think that Power Play’s data activism campaign advocating for greater gender equality in theatre comes from a really good place but, like Eve, I was unconvinced by the play I saw at Power Play HQ. Feminist criticism should not just be about advocating female-led shows, but also subjecting these shows to the same rigorous standards of critique as I would for any other show. So, here goes.
The Empty Chair is set at a Hollywood after-party. Four celebrity colleagues/ frenemies, Ingrid, Grace, James and Lizzie, gradually reveal their experiences of sexual violence, with Ingrid’s absent husband (the empty chair) providing a toxic focal point. Although he presents himself as charming, Martin is an abuser and the scale of his abuse keeps growing.
There are some good points. Polly Creed captures the vapid, overlapping chatter of her Hollywood stars very well and the script is reasonably well-paced. Watching it in an actual dining room feels more intimate, like we are particularly voyeuristic flies on the wall. The play presents a range of non-consensual, traumatic sexual experiences, showing they could happen to men too, and that it’s not a competition for who has had the most traumatic experience. And you can get used to the wavering American accents and the incongruity of realising late on in the play that a 19 year old has actually been playing a 40 year old the whole time.
What I couldn’t really get my head around was the note at the end that informed us that these experiences were based on real students’ experience of sexual violence, collected through a survey. I felt terrible because I was going to say that the play felt unbelievable – or at least the characters weren’t written or performed as real people who had had these experiences – and of course belief is such a loaded term here. I am concerned that we are reaching peak #metoo saturation point where sexual assault is another trope in dramatic representation. And that might mean that real people’s experiences of sexual violence can be dismissed. The Empty Chair does a disservice to its student testimonies to package them in a conceit that fictionalises them and makes them seem less real.
There is an uneasy formal tension in the play between naturalism and confessional monologues, delivered by one character to the audience as the other characters freeze round the table. It feels very on the nose but also like an unsatisfying compromise between a piece of documentary theatre and a completely fictional play. Shows like dressed. and It’s True, It’s True, It’s True have shown that it’s possible to make imaginative, playful, honest and emotionally affecting pieces of theatre about this topic, without compromising the integrity of the real stories from which they emerge. Many other plays, Empty Chair included, can and should do better.
Power Play: The Empty Chair is on until 25 August 2018 at Pleasance Pop-Up. Click here for more details.