Herding Cats is pioneering an exciting hybrid form of theatre, in which two actors perform live on stage, alongside another actor who performs on video stream live from the USA. The production is then performed both in the theatre and over livestream. Two audiences get two unique experiences. One party immediate, one removed.
I am always very aware of my own body in the theatre. How I’m sitting, my dry mouth, if I need the toilet, if I’m tense, relaxed. Going to see Herding Cats at Soho Theatre, I quickly had to get used to this feeling again, because this show wanted to affect me physically, and its subject matter wanted to make me uncomfortable and tense (and included some pretty explicit and sometimes violent sexual descriptions and fantasies, and I noticed there was no content warning on the Soho website). It shows how far we’ve come with online theatre in this past year, and indeed says something about the innovation of this production, that I wish I’d seen it online instead. Because being in the theatre made me feel kinda terrible.
Of course, there is an extent to which I’m getting used to the whole form theatre again, watching this. For the first five minutes I have to shake off an initial incredulity of ’That’s Not How People Speak!’
Sophie Melville as Justine whirls around the stage, an explosion of a woman telling arched dramatic stories about her work infuriation turned infatuation, with Jassa Ahluwalia as Michael, the more stationary punctuating man. He supports everything she says with a suitable exclamation or repetition ‘what?’ ‘no!’ ‘wow’, a rhythmic supportive echo with an inner mystery and darkness of his own.
Like Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando, I think, it’s like they’re performing in two different shows.
Melville is really good in this by the way. She’s at her best when, in a moment of relief at liking what she sees in the mirror, she gasps ‘I’m really happy’. It’s like crystal floating on water.
Michael makes his living through talking to Saddo (Greg Germann, remarkable even over camera from the US) with Michael sexually roleplaying as the older man’s daughter. There are four scenes in which these conversations are played out in their entirety, and they get more and more explicit and violent.
Suddenly, the huge projection of the older man on the phone bears down on me, and I have to look away from the stage, I want desperately to put my hands over my ears, to leave. I feel sick. There are multiple calls between Michael and Saddo, so in each scene I know what’s coming, and it feels like having my head held underwater. As the characters wrestle with breaking their performance within the fantasy, there’s a constant abandoning of the conceit which means you’re freshly submerged into it again.
I don’t want to say that I didn’t like it because of the subject matter. I don’t want to be the critic who can’t handle the tough stuff.
There’s lines like ‘he wants to go at my vagina with a Bunsen burner, until it’s all charred’ which are positioned like their primary intention is to shock. In between each scene, the harsh electronic music comes in suddenly and loudly, which is certainly intended to shock and it keeps making me jump in my seat. I honestly felt like I was being slapped around the face for 80 minutes.
Which I suppose, means that it was undeniably dramatically effective! Everything they were doing was making me feel something about the harshness of loneliness and the darkness contained in people, but the thing is, I just don’t know why they wanted to. To phrase it crudely but honestly, my feelings were hurt.
After all the thinking and discussing the sector has been doing over the past year about the role of the arts in the world and the desperation we’ve shared to invite audiences back into these sacred spaces, I think there is a political weight to the first thing that a theatre offers its audiences. So, I wonder if this play just sat wrong in my emotional and social context, or if other people feel the same way as I do. After a year of isolation and loneliness, I don’t know if I want to watch loneliness of the most upsetting and dark kind. After a year of grieving and hardship for a whole industry, country and world, I’m not sure I want to be invited into my favourite place and punished emotionally. I want to see my friends. I want to walk in the sun. I want to think and feel and feel like the art cares about me as much as I care about it.
Herding Cats is on at Soho Theatre until 23rd May. More info and tickets here.