The Reality Event: Suicide
The Suicide Ensemble
May 12 – 17 2015
Reviewed by Katelyn Panagiris
SUICIDE forms the other half of THE REALITY EVENT – a double bill of work directed by Daniel Gough and devised by The Suicide Ensemble for Anywhere Theatre Festival. Performed alongside GAME, SUICIDE is an infamously controversial and provocative piece. As I made my way to Bean Café I tried to free myself of any expectations, but lurking in the back of my mind were stories I had heard about previous developments of SUICIDE – stories of audience members stopping the performance midway and people leaving the room in tears. This aside, I could not imagine anything that could possibly elicit such a strong reaction from me. I was proven wrong.
Like GAME, SUICIDE has a simple premise:
Five performers. Five simulated suicides.
The audience votes for who should die and how they should die. Despite its set-up, we are told from the very beginning that this performance is not about suicide. Instead it is a self-referential interrogation of where reality and construction meet in the context of theatre, art and more broadly, life. It is an open work that places the audience’s response at its centre.
Over the course of an hour, I witnessed each performer take their life using bleach, pills, tape, a gun and a knife. Before the performance had even begun, masked individuals slowly revealed each fatal instrument from a leather bag. This magnetic moment carried enough gravitas to set the tone for the rest of the performance.
Once again, the performers (including the masked “minions”) could not be faulted in their commitment to the performance.
Each individual stood openly before the audience and inflicted imagined pain upon himself or herself without reason or resistance.
Each suicide took place systematically – there was a set up, act and deconstruction (For example, the effect of bleach on the stomach lining was described in vivid detail). This emphasis on the physical act rather than commentary on suicide reinforced that the performance was not aboutsuicide. In saying this, I argue that not only is it impossible for SUICIDE to avoid the issue of suicide itself, it is also necessary in their interrogation of reality vs. construction which takes place on two levels.
The first level exists where reality and construction are blurred on stage. For example, performer Remi was asked by the audience to commit suicide by placing tape over her mouth, nose and eyes. Before Remi was “pronounced dead” and wrapped up in a tarpaulin, she clapped her hands (strapped behind her back) several times. The tape was ripped from her face and both Remi and the audience took a deep breath. In this moment, I became confused as to whether this moment was an accident (reality) or pre-planned (construction). I also became aware of the very real risk inherent within the performance.
The second level exists where reality and construction are blurred in the mind of the audience. Here, what is being shown on stage meets the experiences, knowledge and ideas of each audience member. It wasn’t until the final suicide, where performer Esther stabbed herself in the stomach, that my own personal life experience and what I saw on stage fused together. Hearing her scream with pain, I felt sick to the stomach and unexpectedly began to cry. At this point too, several audience members got up and left.
I don’t think I have ever been so viscerally and emotionally affected by a performance before.
To feel something so strong in an age of widespread desensitization is quite remarkable. We are surrounded by death in movies, on the news and on the Internet, but how do we respond?
This is only one of the questions raised by SUICIDE. It is a dense, multi-layered and thought provoking work, inciting plenty of post-show discussion and debate. For me, one of the most important questions SUICIDE raises is the ethics of performance: is it ethical to simulate death on stage, causing distress to the audience? Is it ethical to place performers at risk physically? I cannot answer these questions, but I must admit the performance didn’t sit well with me. And maybe that’s the point. As director Daniel Gough said at the end of the performance, it is these feelings of uneasiness that we should be left to consider.
Still, I am considering not only the performance but also my response to the performance. I believe the work has certainly realized its intent, but at what expense? I am intrigued and fascinated by the central idea of reality vs. construction, but wonder if there is some other vehicle that could be used to explore this idea.
Unfortunately the Anywhere Theatre Festival season of THE REALITY EVENT has now ended, however, The Suicide Ensemble is definitely a group to watch. The work they are making is important, unique and unapologetic. It’s work for the audience, which I believe relies on an ongoing discussion between artist and audience about its place in a broader context.