The power of pen pals should not be underestimated. I have a growing number of friends I have never met in the flesh, and not through the 21st century power of social media, but through living 9 out of 10 moments of my life online via Gmail and finding starting email conversations with people a pleasing way to procrastinate. Stephanie Ridings’ The Road To Huntsville is a testament to the impact of letter writing. The ability of written correspondence, through what it conceals as much as what it reveals, to become a complete preoccupation. Letters encourage honesty in a way that face-to-face contact does not. The blank page doesn’t look at you quizzically as you start to talk, or interrupt you as the confessions start flowing. You can also control how the ‘you’ on the page comes across with far more care than in conversation. Edits can be made and if you’re writing to a new pen pal, it can be a chance to slightly reinvent yourself, to decide how you would like to appear to the new friend.
The specific context of Ridings’ penpaling is more unusual than most. Her subject is correspondence with men on death row in America. Or rather, her numerous subjects include correspondence with men on death row in America. Other ones are the death penalty, fractured romantic relationships, depression, Asperger’s Syndrome and cats on the Internet. The problem is not that any of this is uninteresting (indeed, the topics touched on are fascinating); it’s that there’s simply too much. It’s difficult, ultimately, to decide on what Ridings’ actual point it about all this. Is the audience being directed towards a particular conclusion and, if not, is it enough to be relying on an inherently interesting subject matter to sustain it as a piece of theatre?
The other major problem is the questions that arise around the ethics of the piece. The story begins with Ridings relaying how she began ‘researching’ the subject of women befriending men on death row and, frequently, acquiescing to marry them. It’s hard to discuss this without including major spoilers, but suffice to say she then becomes intricately and personally connected to the exact same topic. If Ridings was ‘researching’ a topic like this as a documentary maker or anthropologist, then becoming even a fraction of this involved with the topic being investigated and, more specifically, the humans connected to it, would be in opposition to professional and ethical guidelines. There are no firm rules on the extent to which this changes when the final product is theatre and not academic anthropology, yet the questions it raises were big enough to sufficiently distract attention away from the story being told when watching it.
I’m assuming here that the production is factual because it is presented as such. It could, of course, be entirely fictional – and indeed several aspects of the production hint that it could be invented either partially or wholly. If this is the case then the purpose of the fabrication is also unclear, especially given the overall wooliness of the point the work intends to make.
The only piece of insight that is offered – perhaps inadvertently – is that on the impact of communication. The otherworldly importance of having someone pay you – yes you – a little bit of attention by taking the time to pen or type words on a page. As Ridings’ insertions of her own narrative reveal, you don’t have to be on death row to feel that the weight of another human being’s words could make you do anything – even fly to the other side of the globe.
The Road To Huntsville is on until 17th March 2017 in Bristol. Click here for more details.