Here we go. A fifteen minute review for a fifteen minute play. Simple.
What can you do with fifteen minutes? I’m thinking. Scroll Facebook? Make toast? Get stuck at a dodgy signal on the Underground, mourn the fleeting nature of time as I race through my office tea break. What about establish, investigate and unlearn centuries of colonial brainwashing at the hands of an oppressive Christian society? Let’s find out.
Caryl Churchill’s Pigs and Dogs is a response piece produced to address the passing of anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda, in the vein of her 2009 piece Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza. The play works as a simple time loop, a record which glides through hundreds of years of African culture and inevitably starts to skip. Though high ranking church leaders, politicians and missionaries bark that homosexuality is ‘un-African’, Churchill loops back and remembers a time when tribes celebrated fluidity in gender and sexuality, an open, shifting, all-embracing culture snuffed out in the wake of Western missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The open minded ‘other’ of Africa is built up and destroyed in the time it takes for me to make a cup of tea.
Three days later, I know that this is a noble enough venture. Churchill’s eye is sharp, one of our sharpest still living and writing, and I appreciate the endeavour of assuming some colonial responsibility for far reaching atrocities. As right-wing movements from Tory to Trump gain frightening momentum the world over, it’s vital we explore the roots of intolerance and fear, rather than dismissing those who seem to feel it most deeply as vicious or stupid.
On the other hand, three days later I also feel explained to. I feel I have been didacted at. It’s difficult to shake off the cold hard fact that I had the complexities of African culture explained to me by a middle class white English woman, as I sat in a largely middle class white English audience, in a theatre known for attracting the liberal elite. We all silently nodded along about what a terrible thing colonialism is, as a story of African oppression centuries long was commodified and sold to us in an easily digestible bite-sized package. The cycle continues, the record skips again.
But then, it is the duty of the artist to talk about that which needs discussing, to bring messages to those audiences that would otherwise stew in comfortable ignorance. As one of the most pre-eminent voices in British theatre, a champion of feminism and countless other ‘isms’ I don’t have time to Google right now (I’m well past the ten minute mark already), isn’t it Caryl Churchill’s job to coax the Chelsea masses into their comfortable theatre seats, only to twist the narrative knife in their guts, hold a mirror up to the part they play in the global horrors they claim not to understand?
I keep saying they, but it’s wrong to pretend I don’t have a part to play in all of this. Young, middle class, white, artsy. Much like the vast majority of the people I’ve met working in this industry. Should that scupper our voices? Should that relegate us to certain stories, cordon off potentially valuable artistic interspection (intraspection? Introspection?) about the world and our place in it?
I’m back again, back in the lovely air conditioned Royal Court on a hot summer evening, being told what it means to be Ugandan by a white woman, in a white audience, tutting softly. If the name of the game is self-awareness, we’re not playing correctly. As we file out into Sloane Square, a homeless man stands with a dog, clearly half-dead from the heat. “Doesn’t anybody have a heart?” He shrieks, “Does anybody have a heart here please?” He is quietly moved along and the audience side-steps him, heading for the nearest ice cold G&T we can get our hands on. How relevant is this? I’m running out of time.
As you can probably guess, I haven’t made up my mind. Questions of colonialism, of appropriation, of patronising whole cultures and our right to tell stories are still swirling around in my head. But I’m out of time, and I haven’t found my punchline. There’s no doubt that Pigs and Dogs is thought provoking. Churchill and co have at least provoked me. In the time it usually takes me to compose a particularly devastating or witty tweet, they’ve cracked open my skull and feasted on the contradiction inside. But I wish I had more to say. Perhaps fifteen minutes isn’t long enough.
Pigs and Dogs is on until 30th July 2016. Click here for more information.