There is a famous work – not a single painting but three at once. I don’t need you to know which one. Each of the three paintings is one character in a story which belongs to a fourth subject, who hasn’t been painted. This fourth subject is quite possibly the main character, but all we have to go on, visually, is the sympathetic, the complementary appearance of the three we can see. And because these three only point vaguely towards the whole, we do not have much to go on. The more one tries to identify familiar, human forms and figures in them, the more they twist and contort and become animal, unfeeling, unknowable. What are we to do? It’s all we have.
Art, particularly portraiture, is necromancy. Summon up whatever you remember about flowers, about rivers, about leaves. Paint won’t give you them. Words, performance won’t give you them. But we can play tricks on each other because we’re all terribly suggestible. ‘This is not the first time Elizabeth Siddal has been dug up’; here is RashDash’s portrait of her.
There are only two characters. Lizzie and her portraitist/lover/husband/
I’m loathe to describe the events of the story, because so much of it is Lizzie Siddal having things being done to her. She is not just the subject of the list of nouns which come before Gabriel’s name in the previous paragraph, she is also a model/painter/artist/narrator/
Because Dante is a right cunt to Lizzie but she still loves him. And those things aren’t contradictory. Tho tbh he does persist in being a cunt to her after she’s dead, and digs her up so he can publish some poems he buried with her.
But, you know, we’re not there, we’re not their mates, we’re not about to be able to tell Lizzie she should dump him and get some antibiotics. They’re stood up on a stage, being performed for us. And you know what else? They’re not even on the stage, are they? Because this is all a contrivance. Someone (RashDash) has decided that this story is important, is interesting, is entertaining. That decision’s the only reason any of us are here – something’s worth saying. This woman is worth pointing out, looking at, thinking about.
But we all know she’s real innit. We know from the first five minutes that she is the hero of this story and we can anticipate that, like Cassandra, she will be gaslit and passed over and ultimately we will be party to the knowledge that her work – actually – was great art worthy of our attention, that her story – really – is the one we ought to be paying attention to. It’s the irony of biography, that it ends up being a portrait of the biographer. As much as we learn about Siddal, we learn about RashDash, we learn about ourselves. Theatre really is just a big mirror isn’t it. Shapes drawn in our breath on the glass.
There’s an impulse towards diagnosis in people who are dead (who we admire/who we wanted to be/have more) which RashDash defer. This is theatre, not the DSM-5. Siddal lived a messy life and died a messy death and the people around her were messy too. We see (a version of) the relationship between her and Rossetti, but what is a relationship? It’s push and pull, it’s give and take, it’s love and desire and want and absolute from-the-pit-of-you need, and it’s resent and hate and cheat and wretch and retch and fucking awful and wonderful, and none of these. Whatever the relationship between Rossetti and Siddal was, it was theirs; they made their messy choices inside it.
What I cannot emphasise enough about this and every other RashDash show I’ve seen is that it’s just fucking nice to have a good time. Because I can (and will) talk seriously about why I think it’s important to tell fractured and contradictory stories, but it’s worth saying that I keep banging my head against the brick wall of theatre because – actually – it can be bloody fun. And Look At Me Don’t Look At Me is fun. It’s funny. What it amounts to is pissing about. And I love pissing about, with history, with stories, with the audience, with each other. It is possible to have a good time and talk about, for example, the exploitative relationship between two 19th century artists, or our shrinking worlds in the face of a global pandemic, or what is to be done/said about Chekhov’s looming, male presence in the canon. Look At Me Don’t Look At Me is having fun with things. And I am having a Good Time.
Welcome to the part of the review where I push the concept that this way of telling stories is literally revolutionary. When I say revolutionary I don’t mean ‘cool and new,’ I mean that the form of Look At Me Don’t Look At Me models revolutionary thinking. There is no solid and dependable truth to the story of Lizzie Siddal; there isn’t a moment in the potted history we, the audience, receive which cannot be questioned and remade. The narrative is interrupted by music and song, which highlight the artifice of the whole evening – we are being told a story and telling stories is telling lies. It is our job to revolt when we receive this story – our job is to notice that the story is there.
A revolutionary model is one which allows a broken thing to be fixed, a useful thing to be kept, a new direction to be proposed. What if the story is a mess? What if it is the audience’s job to make sense of it? What if we trust them with that? I do believe that to refuse Aristotelian structure is to propose a future different to our present. To refute the normal arc and the easy moral is to inspire revolutionary thought and action, in the audience, in the rehearsal room, and the writing process. And people who change in those places leave to change the rest of the world, too.
Look At Me Don’t Look At Me played at HOME, Manchester on 13 Aug. It tours to Plaines Plough Roundabout and Theatr Clwyd in August and September. More info here.