Many squirmed recently as they watched Matthew Tennyson consume chocolate after chocolate after chocolate as Robin in Cleansed at the National. But Made Visible is the first show that has made me think about the tyranny of the playwright. Playwrights can condemn actors to say their lines, often wearing certain clothes, night after night – regardless of what the actors in question think of those lines, those clothes, the situations they depict.
In Made Visible, the text is seemingly at war with itself. Deborah Pearson dramatises the desire to write a play about a conversation she (a white Canadian) had with an Indian woman on a bench in Victoria Park, whilst simultaneously dramatising the extended process of questioning that impulse. What makes this encounter notable? Why does she think there is a play in it? Does it matter what the actors who play the characters look like? Sound like? Wear? Pearson’s play is on its most interesting ground when it dramatises these agonies – when an actor recreates objections raised during a workshop of an earlier draft of the play, or when Pearson dictates that the actors swap roles, so that white actor Haley McGee puts on a sari and an embarrassed Indian accent as “Ila”, and Mia Soteriou and Anjali Mya Chadha, both cast to play Indian characters, alternately take on the white confessional speeches in “Deborah’s” voice.
There are two distinct genres of tension in Made Visible: those which Pearson writes, and those that she invites, leaving gaps in her text where the actors are allowed to voice their own opinions on the work (timing each other: a minute for BAME performers Soreriou & Chadha and director Stella Odunlami, who records a daily response to the show, and thirty seconds for the white McGee).
Pearson is intent on examining whiteness and privilege, and her own whiteness and her own privilege, and she repeatedly gestures towards relinquishing her control as a writer to other voices. Chadha uses her minute of free speech to point out that she argued repeatedly for a couple of scenes to be rewritten, including a speech where she is speaking as “Deborah” confessing and defending a set of “Deborah’s” racist thoughts and actions. McGee uses her thirty seconds to say that the piece has had several endings and that she’s not sure that the ending they have fixed upon is the best one. None of the four non-Pearson speeches is completed within the time, and each is cut-off, mid sentence. These gestures only reveal how in control Pearson is. She knows this, and acknowledges this, but the acknowledgement is itself part of the continued imposition of white perspective on to a multiracial production.
Made Visible self-destructs, cogently arguing for a debate and making dramatic gestures towards opening that debate up to other voices, but Pearson ultimately refuses to relinquish control of the piece. It is difficult to relinquish the privilege of the tyrant, and Pearson holds onto the writer’s privilege she has within the space of the theatre and the production.
To try to dissipate some of my own white male critical privilege I texted writer Vinay Patel:
Me: Have you seen Made Visible at the Yard?
VP: No I haven’t. Have been told is Right Up My Street. Truth?
Me: Am writing my review now. Was going to involve you in my response but now I’m just another white guy telling a brown guy about the ‘really important brown play by a white writer’
VP: Mmm. I saw the thing of her saying it was important for her to use her privilege to get the point across and I’m sure it’s great just that self-justification is eye roll o’clock.
Me: Can I quote you on that?
VP: Hah I think with the shit coming my way next week it’s relatively low level controversy.
Me: Ha! Can’t wait to watch.
VP: I increasingly think the number one important brown people thing is to exist in those spaces. Far more important in a way than the actual brown stories to my mind.
‘Cause I like to think Anyone can write Anything, it’s just a case of taking responsibility. The existing is more concrete innit.
*climbs down off high-horse*
Oooh my friend Meg is good on this re: game protagonists. Hang on.
(Vinay asked me to add that, following this exchange, he has now booked to see the show.)
In her Guardian interview, Pearson says, “There was a draft of the piece where I just gave over the entire ending to different theorists of colour. That was really dry and theatrically it didn’t work, but conceptually I know why that’s what I wanted to do, because it’s about using my privilege to amplify other voices. … if you don’t talk about it then you are complicit in enabling that power structure to continue.”
In the PC Gamer article by white male Tom Francis which Vinay sent to me, Meg Jayanth, writer of 80 Days says “You don’t get to lead the revolution if you’re not the one being oppressed.”
In the play, Pearson argues for the great defining feature of whiteness being the ability to be invisible, a privilege as a white female that she sometimes benefits from, and one which I, as a white male, am even more familiar with – the possibility of being without being viewed through a racial or gendered lens, the selective engagement of the default. What Made Visible does do is that it makes Pearson visible, her whiteness, her instincts, her fears, her neuroses and her acknowledged and unacknowledged power.
Made Visible is on at The Yard until 9th April 2016. Click here for tickets.