I’m a people watcher. Sometimes, mid-way through dinner in a restaurant, my husband will cut off his sentence to ask, “Sorry, do you know those people?” With ‘those people’ being the complete strangers I have been intensely staring at for the past 20 minutes.
‘It’s rude to stare’ was obviously an invective that passed me by in my childhood because faced in secondary school with being assigned a ‘future career’ in PSHE, I was given ‘Anthropologist’. “What does that mean?” I asked with annoyance (I wanted to be something cool, like a high-powered lawyer.) “It means you look at people,” replied my tutor.
Recently, I recalled this tutorial exercise and realised, with a certain horror, that try as I had to avoid being an Anthropologist, I had succumbed entirely to this prediction and taken on a career based on a proclivity to stop and stare. To be a theatre critic is, quite literally, to be the person who looks at other people.
But despite this underlying principle of being an audience member of any kind, the ‘looking at’ element of theatre is ordinarily limited by, for example, the distance of your seat from the stage or the movement of the performers across the space. Clod Ensemble’s Under Glass, first staged in 2009 and revived for a UK tour this autumn, surpasses all expectations of what it is to look, both in a theatrical setting and the wider world. The audience is ushered between a collection of glass boxes, jars or screens to watch the performers writhe, contort and move behind the transparent material. All but one, a lady on a telephone, are silent and, save for this woman and a man enacting a psychodrama of office-based angst, there is no traditional narrative underpinning the individual performances.
It’s often remarked that a feature of the modern, Millennial condition is to be constantly photographed, either by ourselves or others, and for these images to be shared to the point where nothing seems quite real unless it is simultaneously documented – people taking selfies in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, that type of thing. Yet the obsession with creating images and sharing them, somehow negates the act of looking, partly because the images are staged, filtered and edited, and partly because the screens we look through foster more of a distance between looker and looked-at than a closeness.
Under Glass invites the viewer to really look. To stare with abandon at living, breathing, imperfect human beings (and I mean ‘imperfect’ as a compliment, as in: the perfectness of the human is its imperfections). Maybe I take this invitation too far, plonking myself down on the carpet directly in front of a performer in an oversized glass jar and locking my eyes onto her twisting body. The fear of being a distracting presence flickers through my mind, only to be replaced with the selfish desire to just keep looking. Because it’s fascinating to really look at another human up close. To notice their tiny birthmark on their right shoulder; to look at them looking at their own foot the way a tiny baby marvels at its own body parts.
I was enticed into Under Glass by the press release blurb describing the work as interrogating the ‘medical gaze’ through turning humans into specimens by placing them in glass containers. I thought it would help me with some other work I was doing on exactly this topic. Curiously though, I experienced Under Glass from the exact opposite perspective. Rather than produce a cold, objective distance between the bodies of the performers and those observing them, the glass divisions in Clod Ensemble’s work magnify the fleshy humanity of those standing, crouching or lying beneath them. In this respect they function as the antithesis of the iPhone or MacBook screen, revealing real bodies in clothes that bunch and restrict, and skin that has toughened against the cold and pollution.
Never is this more so than with two performers lying on a quilted mattress below a screen, that the audience views from above. Like a couple who have shared a bed with each other from a long time, they roll around, against and off one another, acting out in miniature the emotions of a life-long relationship: the moments spent trying to entice them to hold you, followed by the impulse to repel and cower, and then repeat repeat repeat. Watching each exact movement is like bearing witness to the most tiny, tender moments of interaction.
Clod Ensemble are touring Under Glass until 25 November 2017. Click here for more details.