The events of the TV series of Games of Thrones have now surpassed those of George R R Martin’s books. The books and the drama are now divergent entities that show alternative pathways for the story to develop. It’s an exciting to see the notion of separate but linked works of art enter into the mainstream.
Likewise, the novel of The Handmaid’s Tale is a bruising read in the way that it evokes a claustrophobic atmosphere of an imprisoned mind and body. The drama, in contrast, is far more expansive in it’s building of the theocratic world of Gilead and in it’s backstories of several characters, some of whom barely feature in the novel.
The series ended on a cliffhanger, as in the original text, but it has been re-commissioned for a second season. What the drama cannot convey, however, is the significance of the original story’s form and what Atwood has to say about unreliable narrators.
The epilogue to the novel is a transcribed conference set some two hundred years after the events described in the novel proper. The keynote speaker, Professor Piexioto, informs us that Ofred’s story is in fact an edited version of recordings she made that were unearthed some years after Gilead fell. The professor hesitates to describe her story as a document because of the impossibility of verifying the claims Ofred makes on the cassette tapes. Moreover, the identity of the author herself remains unknown. Atwood invites the reader to consider how a work of fiction can function as documentary evidence.
Atwood has vociferously objected to her novel being classified as sci-fi, preferring to think of it as a piece of speculative fiction. She contests that the distinction is key to understanding that the events in the novel are re-imaginings of real instances of state sanctioned oppression against women. Although we are never compelled to read The Handmaid’s Tale as a true historical source, the fact that Atwood asks us to consider the historical veracity of such an emotionally and intellectually effective story represents a challenge to the ways information is classified between objective facts and subjective truths.
The TV adaptation has given the story a reinvigorated potency in the Trump era. There have been several instances of protesters dressing as handmaids to highlight the dangers of politicians potentially treating abortion as a crime with it’s implication that women should not have control over their bodies. It is a significant example of art being used as a method of resistance against political ideologies and is something I have not seen with such direct application in my lifetime. The Handmaid’s Tale provides a visual language for human rights and acts as warning that we should never consider our freedoms sacrosanct.
The case of Binjamin Wilkomirski, however,demonstrates the danger that may be encountered when artists find history such an alluring subject that they believe they can participate in the formulation of public memory without a fictive artifice.
Published in 1995, Fragments is Wilkomirski’s memoir of his childhood experiences in Auschwitz and Majdanek. Wilkomirski’s claimed that at the end of the war his adoptive Swiss parents gave him a new identity and expunged his memories of the camps. After undergoing psychotherapy he was able to reconstruct incredibly visceral memories, including having his toes gnawed by rats and watching a starving baby suck its thumb to the bone.
The book was met with widespread critical acclaim, receiving numerous awards and was translated into nine languages. But a few years after the book’s publication Wilkomirski was interviewed by Daniel Ganzfried, a journalist and Holocaust survivor. Upon meeting the author he began to harbour serious doubts about Wilkomirski’s story. Ganzfried soon discovered that Wilkomirski’s was a native Swiss and not Latvian as he claimed. Following these revelations the historian Stefan Machler found evidence that entirely disproved the author’s presence in either concentration camp. But to this day Wilkomirski’s maintains that Fragments is a truthful reflection of his memories. When asked if he deliberately set out to deceive the public, Wilkomirski stated that readers were free to read Fragments either as a work of literature or as an historical document.
The Wilkomirski case is an instructive example of how an historical event can be plagiarised by appropriating the identity of a first-hand voice. The Wilkomirski who wrote Fragments was a constructed identity but the hellish images he was able to conjure in his prose clearly had a profound effect on his readers. The fact that his account is a fiction undoubtedly renders Fragments an inauthentic historical record,whilst also defaming seminal Holocaust memoirs such as If This Is A Man and I Shall Bear Witness, but it should not be forgotten that organisations like the Holocaust Museum in New York heaped great praise on the book. This indicates that the sensory details in the text re-created a world that his readers instinctively responded to as containing an essence of authenticity.
The Handmaid’s Tale and Fragments are texts set with the parameters of reality in the sense that both evoke imaginative worlds that connect readers to an interpretation of historical fantasy. The success of this process is not contingent upon mimesis but on a reconfiguration of the documentary evidence.
Television and cinema offer a possible means of making this reality intelligible and, maybe, paradoxically, make mediatised reality feel more real than our daily actions. For example, many commentators made comparisons between the EU referendum campaign and the events in Game of Thrones and House of Cards in the aftermath of the Brexit vote. These dramas offer audiences shared terms of references for understanding discombobulating events. Whilst the search for truth in art is nothing new, the ubiquity of media has created a new sense of what it is to be immersed inside of a reality outside of the everyday. Frank Camilleri’s conception of hybridity as a “spectrum or continuum of blended possibilities” (2015, p.112) is an accurate description of the blurred lines we tread between the virtual and the physical, the mediated and the real. When applied to the ways we perceive and interpret reality, hybridity offers enough scope to consider the manifold forms the real of reality manifests in, including it’s presence in art works and as aesthetic experiences.
Immersive theatre has grown in popularity over the past decade, pioneered by companies like ZU-UK, You Me Me Bum Bum Train, Punch Drunk, and dreamthinkspeak. Jen Harvie argues that immersive performance “aims…to provide, in everyday activities at the moment of the encounter, modest but pervasive communication, provisional social consensus and micro-utopias” (2013, p.7). In this respect, immersive performance enables the audience to participate in and, optimally, to shape the “scripted unreality” (Robinson, 2017) they are enveloped inside of.
Dystopia as a genre always works best when it speaks creates plausible realities. The most convincing dystopian worlds show the potential consequences of our present moment. I have seen two pieces over the past year that have illustrated how a branch of performance is developing that acts as a hybrid of the everyday and the theatrical to build immersive worlds that sit on the line between everyday and theatrical realities.
Secret Cinema staged a live version of the zombie horror 28 Days Later in spring 2016. The film’s protagonist, Jim, wakes up in hospital 28 days after the country has collapsed following the outbreak of the rage virus. He soon meets a small group of survivors in London, who after hearing a radio message promising sanctuary leave the city are intercepted by an army unit. The commander tells Jim that he maintained discipline in his men by promising them women. Jim orchestrates a daring escape by releasing an infected soldier into the compound and rescues his two friends. The film ends a further twenty-eight days after the events of the film proper with the group possibly being rescued.
In the original version of 28 Days Later the emphasis is on immediate survival of the characters, rather than the long-term societal effects of the rage virus. In contrast, the Secret Cinema version made significant additions to the reality of the movie to enhance its dystopian elements and thereby deepening the experience of immersing oneself into the hybrid reality of 28 Days Later.
The aesthetic of 28 Days Later manifested as a series of portals into a dystopian reality that resonated strongly with current events. The film’s most famous scene shows Jim wandering through a deserted London, dressed in hospital scrubs. Whilst similar scenes are present in many zombie horror movies, the post-9/11 context gave it an eerie degree of plausibility. This feature of the film was significantly increased in the Secret Cinema version by slowly immersing the audience in a joint act of perception outside of the live event sphere.
After I purchased my ticket I received an email from Dr Louis Chambers telling me I had been selected for vaccination against the rage virus. I was instructed to report to the fictional St Thomas’s hospital in Surrey Quays in the Docklands area of London and that I should register as a patient on the NSH website. I was also sent a costume and a rage survival kit.
The decision to perform-screen 28 Days Later in London’s docklands area was, on one level, a reference to the primary location shooting of its sequel, 28 Weeks Later, but in an experiential sense also triggered a sub-conscious imaginary of a dystopian society. Halfway through the performance-screening we listened to a radio broadcast from the Balfron Tower, a derelict tower block in the Docklands area. As a rather crude cardboard cut out of the tower glimmered at the far end of the room we were sat in, I began to wander if the 28 Days Later experience I was immersed in was acting as a way to rehearse my imagination, to refine the details of a personal dystopia by reconfiguring elements of the everyday into a plausible reality I could temporarily live inside of. The real elements Secret Cinema incorporated into their version outlasted the event and so might very well factor in a real-life dystopia.
Blast Theory took deepened the immersion into the theatrical real in their piece Operation Black Antler. The piece was inspired by the revelations that the police had been conducting surveillance operations using deep undercover offices who infiltrated people’s lives – sometimes to the extent of marrying their suspects. Operation Black Antler invited participants to judge the ethics of police surveillance and to consider what it says about our political culture and right to privacy.
I saw it at a particularly fevered period for the country. It was the day after the general election when Labour had far exceeded expectations in winning seats from the Conservatives. For a moment, a Labour government became a possibility, something almost unimaginable 24 hours previously. The country had been hit by a series of terrorist attacks during the campaign which brought the issue of cuts to police funding to the fore. The most devastating attack occurred in Manchester, which is where Operation Black Antler was playing.
I arrived in Manchester tired, dazed, but elated. I had not slept the night before, glued as I had been to the news watching Labour gain seats. A hangover was forming behind my eyes and my throat was sore from chain smoking with my friend. I don’t know Manchester well so I was shocked when I stumbled across Albert Square in the city centre.
Seeing the flowers in memory of those who had died jolted me into a story I had thus far just seen on the news. Just a couple of weeks before I had watched a crowd of thousands gather to pay their respects and cheer when the poet Tony Walsh read his homage to Manchester, ‘This Is the Place’.
A few hours later I arrived at the railway arches I had been instructed to go to via text message. I was met by a woman dressed in blue overalls who took me into an old cab office underneath the bridge. A map of the city was pasted onto the wall along with fuzzy surveillance photos. I, along with fellow participants were told that we had been selected to go undercover and infiltrate a far right group (clearly based on Britain First and the English Defence League). After we had been placed into teams we were briefed on specific targets. Our aim was to find out the group’s objectives and gather intelligence on its activities.
The daughter of one of the group’s most prominent figures had advertised a party at a local pub. When we arrived there we were free to speak to anyone we chose to. Operation Black Antler‘s brilliance was in giving us agency to deepen our immersion into the reality of the piece by inviting us to express extreme sentiments in order to fulfil our mission. I was able to filter everyday reality into the dramaturgy by mentioning the election, the terrorist attacks and my fictional unemployment status, all of which I was easily able to claim gave justice to my racist views.
Both pieces demonstrate how performance can act as a document proferring a documentary structure that fuses the everyday and the theatrical to create a hybrid world. The capacity and desire from audiences to participate in these structures has potential to create a new paradigm of performance that cites performance as documents, not just transient events.
All of the works I have cited here evidence a spectrum of immersion. The sense of immersion is enhanced when artworks – whether they be books, TV drama or a live performance – link to historical or current events. Describing them as hybrid documents expresses the multiple fields they work across, pervading artistic and everyday spheres of activity.
Camilleri, F. (2015) ‘Of Hybrids and the Posthuman: Performer Training in the 21st Century’ in The Drama Review, vol. 59, issue 3
Harvie, J .(2013) Fair Play, Art and Neoliberalism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan
Robinson, L. (2017). ‘Information Resources, the Nature of Documents and Their Communication’ [Blog]. thelynxiblog. Available at: https://thelynxiblog.com/about/information-resources-the-nature-of-documents-and-communication/. Accessed: 11 August 2017