A few months ago I saw, in the space of a week, Katie Mitchell’s production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and the blockbuster movie Deadpool. The juxtaposition got me thinking. Of these two events, the live one was essentially a fourth wall play (we’ll come back that vexed issue) which uses extreme violence in way that offers a (deliberately) highly problematised take on catharsis. The prerecorded one also challenges us (or thinks it does) with the way it shows violence but is obsessed – paradoxically, I suppose – with breaking the fourth wall.

I have to get something off my chest, sorry. At one point in Deadpool, the eponymous hero addresses us directly, which leads into a story, in which he also addresses us directly. A fourth wall inside a fourth wall: that’s sixteen walls, he calculates. No it isn’t. Why would it be four squared? It’s clearly a concentric construction; four walls within four walls. Eight walls.

More relevantly to this piece of writing, his fourth wall antics are intrinsic to the film’s whole idea of undercutting in a smart and sassy way the conventions of a superhero movie, while in terms of basic plot and character nonetheless following all the conventions of a superhero movie. Apart from showing the violence in a more graphic way than normal and being overtly meta.

Of course people talk about this film as being ultraviolent but all superhero movies are ultraviolent. It’s just that the normal idea is that you don’t really show the consequences. Horrific things happen to people but if they are necessary for the continuation of the plot they survive miraculously and with very little disturbing disfiguration, while expendable minor characters die quickly, quietly and, most importantly, cleanly. So the idea of a main character who feels pain but whose body can repair itself, is a great way of taking violence to absurd levels. And that certainly happens – sometimes quite horrifically and graphically – in this film. The important thing, I think, is the fact that there is a lot more blood and assorted body parts that normally goes with this type of popcorn fodder. The violence actually has consequences, and its cruel absurdity is made more obvious. OK, yes, you say (yes, in my head you do). That’s fine but it’s not marketed at quite same audience as Captain America so does that matter? Because it’s not making fans of the genre question their blind spot.

Except it sort of is the same audience really, isn’t it? Minus the kids.

Meanwhile in other superhero films we teach kids that extreme violence is a great way of solving problems and doesn’t really do anyone important any significant harm. It’s all too easy for the violence to add up to a pleasantly empowering and probably slightly fascistic experience. Which certainly stops just a bit short of catharsis.

Deadpool doesn’t add up to all that much either, although there was an honesty and a wit to it that I enjoyed. Still, it did a boil down to a big punch-up between a good guy and a bad guy at the end, and resolution that was dressed up with a bit of spray-on cynicism but was still basically a Hollywood resolution, I was really hoping it would manage to be a little bit cleverer than that somehow. Ah well. At least I had fun on the way.

Cleansed is, of course, very much about catharsis (whether you think it offers it or withholds it) and I think the problematic and unresolved take on theatrical soul-cleansing that Kane offers was, to a large extent, delivered in this production. That said, I thought some of the changes to the original stage directions, especially at the end, lessened the impact, and the naturalism, though horribly beautiful to watch didn’t quite work out how to deal with the script’s more abstract, absurdist qualities. Those issues are not what I really want to talk about though. I’m interested that there’s something about violence and the fourth wall that needs unpicking.

Mitchell does this thing with the fourth wall. She knows it’s absurd, I suppose: she knows that a bunch of people on the stage pretending they’re not being watched by the hundreds of people a few metres away from them is really weird and crazy. So she has this thing she does in which, at the beginning of the show, she wrenches open a physicalisation of the fourth wall in dramatic fashion. The first time I saw this I thought it was pretty smart but since then I have come to wonder if it is simply an excuse to then carry on with the normal delusions. It’s like saying, okay, hands up, I know the fourth wall is a thing and it needs to be broken so I’m just going to do this big gesture. Guys, I’ve shown that I get it. Now shut up and watch my play like a good, passive audience. Thank you.

This niggles but it’s not the thing that annoys me most about Mitchell. The thing that annoys me most is totally not her fault. It’s the fact that when she started using live feed video, lots of people thought that she had revolutionised theatre. What she was doing was what companies like the Wooster Group had been doing for decades. And that lots and lots of experimental or even not particularly experimental theatre companies were continuing to do and are doing still. But it wasn’t her making the false claims so I can’t hold that against her. And I generally admire her shows a lot.

The thing that really breaks the fourth wall in Cleansed, if you don’t mind me getting back on topic, is the violence. And I think that’s the point that I’m so painfully limping towards. The play is a kind of acting out of (anti)cathartic violence for the characters (if they can stay alive) and the doing of that is simultaneously (anti)cathartic for the audience. Because if you’re in the audience, experiencing that kind of thing, you become very aware of the situation: the other audience members, the room that you are all in, the disconnect between the fact that you can see it’s being acted and the incredible discomfort that it still makes you feel. Even if the actors are valiantly pretending the fourth wall is in place (which they were) somehow it is broken, if only from our perspective.

So with that in mind it’s really interesting that when a Hollywood film wants to try to be a bit cleverer than normal it combines violence that is a bit more disturbing than we are used to with some wise-cracking breaking of the fourth wall. And it’s interesting that by doing so this film to an extent inhabits the territory of the theatre. (Apart from the huge amount of locations, the expensive CGI, the massive budget and the fact that it’s a film.) Whatever, dear reader, do I mean by that?

Breaking the fourth wall was a thing before the fourth wall was properly invented. Talking to the audience has been going on in theatre for a long time. So has violence that has been designed very deliberately to have a profound effect on the audience. One of the biggest ideas to run through pretty much all of theatre is the idea of the acting out of suffering on our behalf. Whether or not theatre had its beginnings in ritual (surely it did to an extent) it is nonetheless a kind of symbolic sacrifice of the (live) performer, sometimes with a happy ending and sometimes not. It’s worth pointing out the obvious: classical drama was often explicitly about catharsis while mediaeval drama was about an aspect of God symbolically suffering on our behalf and the progress of the human soul from fall through suffering to grace. And they’re roughly speaking the twin roots of our Western drama. All of which makes the idea of a fourth wall in those contexts simultaneously pointless and, to the extent to which it functions, unproblematic.

It gets problematic, I suppose, when we go to a play (or film) expecting that we will emerge unchanged. When we don’t have that personal investment in the goings-on on stage. When it’s perceived or conceived as simply entertainment. It seems to me that presenting violence in a genuinely disturbing way is a pretty effective way of cutting through that. The trouble with filmic breaking of the fourth wall is that it never really works because, well, it is pre-recorded. And with theatre the trouble is that the fourth wall doesn’t really exist; it’s a construct that has to be established every time (even if we expect it). But films and plays certainly have the power to break our passivity by challenging us; by offering something disturbing, like violence, which reminds us of our presence in the space, which makes us suffer vicariously. Which make the play or film functional rather than descriptive.

I guess this is as far as this meandering fragment of writing goes. I don’t have any great intellectual conclusion to draw, just thoughts to share. If there’s any generalisation to be made, it’s perhaps that you can do your clever fourth wall awareness stuff if you like – hey, it’s fun, and sometimes shifts perspectives in a dizzyingly exciting way – but it’s the nature of your offer to the audience that really matters. So if you really want to connect with audiences in a meaningful way you, I dunno, might want to make them with witness terrible suffering.

Whether I’d really want to see lots of that, or make that kind of theatre myself, I don’t know. My offer to the audience is generally about occupying a democratic space and doing stuff like sharing food and having a nice chat.

But traumatising them – hey, that works too.

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