With the return this month of Five Truths, Katie Mitchell’s dizzying immersive video installation, also returns the slippery idea of “truth in performance”. Mitchell’s piece, now showing at the National Theatre after being created for the V&A last year, surrounds viewers with multiple screens simultaneously showing five different interpretations of the same scene, each refracted through the lens of a different practitioner. It’s a who’s who of twentieth century theatre, from Brecht to Grotowski to Brook. The concept at its centre, though, of interrogating the idea of “truth” in theatrical representation, is a contentious one.
When Emerson said that “truth is beautiful, without doubt; but so are lies”, he might as well have been delineating the seductive paradox of the stage. For an art form that so often shoots for veracity or insight of one kind or another, theatre is mighty keen on deception. It hardly needs pointing out, for example, that realist theatre is reliant on the process of pretending, of temporarily accepting the lie that one thing or person is in fact something or someone else, but this lie is now so conditioned into our acts of spectatorship that it is often left unacknowledged and uninterrogated.
I was reminded of this internal tension while at The Print Room last week watching Thom Pain, Will Eno’s quietly extraordinary monologue. Unlike many monologues, which take the form’s mode of direct address for granted while leaving the fourth wall in every other sense very firmly intact, Eno’s writing is hyper-aware of its formal trappings – it is delicately attuned to the idiosyncrasies of performance. Through a carefully calculated acknowledgement of its spectators, the piece dislocates that lazy relationship between audience and performer and unveils the strange irony of a medium that thrives on lies while proclaiming to investigate truth.
On the flipside, there is something immediately odd about being presented with a situation on stage that we are emphatically told is real, because this itself is the basis of realism: being encouraged to accept a theatrical fiction as a kind of reality. In much realist theatre, this simple exchange – one thing standing for another – is just assumed. Paradoxically, the moment we are informed that what is on stage before us really is real, we are feeling for the joins, tugging at the magician’s curtain. It is a feeling that seemed to haunt Ten Billion, another of Mitchell’s projects, with some critics unable to stop themselves from wondering if there wasn’t a catch in this seemingly straightforward and nakedly bleak lecture. Intriguingly, unadorned reality can often feel more artificial than fiction.
Skipping between genres, this also presents, for me, one of the problems with the verbatim form. It is a brand of theatre which overtly advertises itself as truthful, presenting the words of its subjects free from any cosmetic snipping or enhancement, with every last “um” and err” left intact to function as linguistic markers of its veracity. But precisely by being so conspicuously “real”, so “authentic” – a term that has become somewhat fetishised – it simultaneously screams its own artificiality. I am immediately uneasy with these words, however genuine they may be, because their very authenticity reminds me that they have been collected by someone in order to present them to an audience, someone who has decided who to speak to and which of their words to deposit on stage. The process is inevitably implicated.
When these intermingled truths and lies really become interesting, however, is when they are thrown back on themselves. The much discussed notion of representation, for instance, provides a fascinating example of how audiences are willing to blind themselves to some lies but not to others. Thanks to the dominant British tradition of realism, the moment that casting veers away from equivalent age, gender or race, it generates a kind of frisson of awareness, peeling back the facade of naturalism to scratch away at something else underneath. Be it Eno’s playful stretching of the monologue form or the additional layer of artificiality created by verbatim’s marriage with music in London Road, intriguingly problematising the already problematic process at its centre, theatre that displaces its own pretence of truth-telling raises startling new possibilities.
This may just be a matter of taste, but while naturalistic representation can be beautiful and expressive and delicately done, I find myself more and more interested in theatre that has this kind of self-reflexive element. Theatre, in other words, that admits that it is theatre and that thinks there might be something interesting in this performative act of willing deception. And perhaps there, in shining a light on the falsehoods that these theatrical conventions support or are supported by, lies another kind of truth.
In speaking about their work, theatremakers often appeal to an essential truth – about society, about political structures, about what it means to be human – that is projected as their art’s ultimate aim. And sure, theatre can be great at unearthing incisive, illuminating, surprising realisations. But it also tells such pretty fibs.