Futureproof explores voyeurism through a 19th century travelling freak show
Dominic Hill’s swansong at the Trav set for Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2011
This article is from 2011.
The first co-production between the Traverse and Dundee Rep is also artistic director Dominic Hill’s swansong at the Trav. Hill and playwright Lynda Radley talk to Steve Cramer about the play, which explores voyeurism through a 19th century travelling freak show
Voyeurism is something we all have an uncomfortable relationship with. Those watching the currently unfolding stories about our popular press, might well wish to reflect for a moment that the lurid tales of celebrity misbehaviour, however squalid the uncovering of such stories is, would not exist were there no appetite for such scandal among the public.
And voyeurism is not confined to what we call low art. Nor is it an exclusively lower-class activity – the fans of Victorian Bedlams were often the higher castes of society. The stories of Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet are also about watching the complicated private dilemmas of others within a darkened room where we go unobserved. Perhaps voyeurism is an act of projection, where our own anxieties are imposed upon others to make us feel better. That at least is part of the reasoning behind Lynda Radley’s new play, Futureproof, which locates itself in a world where voyeurism is unavoidably the central attraction, the freak show.
The action revolves around a travelling show that has begun to endure hard times, due to a sudden discovery of conscience on the part of the public. As Radley explains, the decision by the manager to ‘normalise’ his cast has serious consequences for some.
‘These are people often left in very difficult circumstances by the change in attitude to what many of them have done for a long time, and so the question within the play is how do they change, and what is it they have to do to make themselves palatable again?’ she says. ‘Part of the interest in that is that they are like a very tight family, and the change makes it more difficult for some of them than others. So, for example, there’s a really, really fat man, and he gets thin, and that’s kind of manageable, but what do you do with the hermaphrodite? That’s where the drama comes from.’
The new kind of freak show that we’ve become accustomed to on reality TV is a kind of reverse version of the old kind, as Radley observes.
‘I’ve been watching a lot of programmes like America’s Next Top Model and The Swan – that one involves a massive amount of cosmetic surgery. Now, so often these shows are all about changing people on the outside, without really creating change in the person themselves.’
This alarming, perversely aspirational version of the freak show also intrigues Dominic Hill, who will be directing his last show at the Traverse with Futureproof. ‘So the idea is that the manager is saying to his audience,’ he says. ‘Originally, you looked at these people and said, “There but for the grace of God go I”, but now, in the new version of the show the audience look at this group of changed people and say, “Wow, that could be me”.
‘It’s very much a play about the world we live in today,’ he continues. ‘I think it’s about our obsession with perfection and beauty. That is a political subject. The play celebrates difference and extraordinariness, and challenges our need to pigeon-hole people.’
Radley looks at the forms of celebrity created by reality TV, and through the play creates a deft metaphor for its exploration. ‘I’m kind of interested in that world; what it’s like to spend your life in the spotlight, what it’s like to be looked at. In the play there are different reactions to that, some of the characters delight in the spotlight, and that’s how they choose to be, and others are more uncomfortable with it.’
But surely the recreation of the freak show creates dangers of its own. Is the ambivalent mix of fascination and pity conjured up by such films as Tod Browning’s 1932 shocker Freaks likely to be an obstacle to the play’s message?
Hill doesn’t think so. ‘Well, I think what we’ve aimed to do is remove the immediate emotional impact, there isn’t that kind of voyeuristic fascination that you get when you look at a film like that. The piece has a very poetic, heightened quality, it’s not naturalistic so we’re not trying to recreate a freak show, which can be very harsh and horrible and terrifying. This is more like recreating a world of a group of travelling performers, some of whom happen to be different from us.
‘It’s heightened, it’s funny, it’s grotesque, but it’s not painful, the characters in the play are more cartoonish, not really engaged with the physical implications of how they are.’
Hill’s last show at the Traverse reunites him with his previous company, the acclaimed Dundee Rep ensemble, which he feels is particularly appropriate.
‘I think it’s very much an advantage, and a very lovely experience to be doing a play about an ensemble of performers with an ensemble of performers, that adds a lot to it. All the onstage and offstage politics that go on with a group of performers like that is intriguing. It’s very much like a family.’
I’m tempted to ask him more about those offstage politics, but wouldn’t that be a bit, well, voyeuristic?
Futureproof, Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, 7–28 Aug (not 8, 15, 22), times vary, £17–£19 (£12–£13). Preview 6 Aug, £12 (£6).