Thursday, 27 September 2012

Okay, that's enough on Wonderland

An image that does not appear in this version of the show.
Wonderland didn't go far enough. That isn't to say that a story about violent pornography, the destruction of the heteronormative relationship through the accessibility of on-line dark fantasies and the degradation of sexuality into a mere commodity is in some way mundane. But the focus on a particular sort of pornography and eroticism, ironically, softened the blow.

Although Wonderland - it shares a title with a film about the association of the pornographic and the criminal - sets out to unravel the sickening complicity of polite society and its darker underbelly, it descends too quickly into the world of violent, misogynist pornography. The allusions to Alice in Wonderland suggest a sort of "seduction of the innocent" but this Alice is already corrupted by the start of the play. She may act the innocent at the start, but she is merely posing, all the better to fulfil the pornographic fantasy.

The simple narrative of a woman losing her autonomy through  performing in pornography is complicated by Alice's own ability to switch between the compliant and the determined.  Although there is a moment when she resists the pornographers - sincerely, not in character - the switches between her porn persona, Heidi, and her true self, Alice, prevent the moral as being simply a condemnation of exploitation.

Then there is the sort of pornography being represented in Wonderland. It is not, as many reviews have stated, "hardcore pornography". It  is violent, hardcore pornography. Wonderland isn't making a point about the general availability of sexually explicit content. It is looking at a very specific strand of pornography.

Vanishing Point reduce the problem of on-line pornography into a matter of content, not its very existence. The tension between the complexity of Alice's story and the specificity of the pornography undermines Wonderland's immediacy. It is more philosophically satisfying - Wonderland is far from an angry polemic on exploitation - but lacks a visceral attack.

The danger presented in Wonderland is that certain men are getting their sadistic kicks through the proliferation of hardcore, violent film. Instead of an everyman character being seduced into nastier eroticism, the male starts off with some fairly vicious kinks: he tries to persuade a cam woman to abuse herself, has a thing for young girls. That the woman on cam draws a line under his antics is a forceful reminder that, actually, such behaviour is extreme. By the time he is watching a video of a woman being murdered (which the play makes clear is a performance and not a snuff film), he has already embraced his desires as liberating.

He's effectively insane by the time he is running about and cleaning his house in paroxyms of guilt.

By making the villain so specific, Vanishing Point allow the audience an escape. Lenton is clearly not interested in bland generalisations - the fuss made about the production at the Edinburgh International Festival implied that this was a scathing analysis of hardcore pornography's impact on society. It also suggested that the play had gone too far, and become as exploitative as the material it aimed to condemn. Neither of these are true. The appearance of the actors for the traditional bow reveals how far this show is from torture pornography. The blood can be wiped away.

Instead, Wonderland is about a specific perversion, one still generally regarded as beyond the pale. When The Skinny is full of articles about how pornography is okay, really, Lenton does well to find a subject that remains controversial: yet ultimately, few people will be challenged by the idea that being sexually aroused by violence against women is a bad thing.

However, Lenton does hint at a broader application. The dream-like sequences, familiar from Vanishing Point's last production, Saturday Night, encourage a more metaphorical interpretation. If the torture porn is a symbol for violence or pornography in general, the play is making a powerful point, examining how pornography can alienate. Yet, ironically, the class of the characters becomes important: it's a nice middle-class couple getting screwed by the internet. Again like Saturday Night, Vanishing Point are preoccupied with the horror beneath the facade of respectability.

It also becomes a man's story. Ultimately, Alice walks away, and the lingering image is of the consumer, covered in blood - very deliberately, Alice wipes the blood from her face in her "exit interview," designed to prove that the film she has been making is fictional. Vanishing Point have done such a good job of mixing fantasy and reality by this point, it is not clear whether the blood she wipes away is meant to be real. But the story of Alice is submerged beneath John's.

Vanishing Point are a brilliant company: Kai Fisher's design is superb, allowing the video footage to dominate the domestic bliss the straight couple have built in the form of a comfortable sitting room; Jenny Hulse is incredible as Alice, flickering between her pornographic role as a victim and an assertive young woman with ease. The cast is strong throughout and Lenton's ability to introduce a surreal visual sequence is deployed to disorientating effect.

But this brilliance can obscure the seriousness of the subject. An accomplished drama can hide the viciousness of its content beneath the veneer of theatrical intelligence. Wonderland tells one story - and rejects telling a great many others - with theatrical verve and philosophical integrity. But as a meditation on the power imbalance within pornography, it is trumped by Pamela Carter's short, Meat, which manages, in twenty minutes and a final wry smile, to deconstruct the acceptability of pornography in a similar heteronormative couple's life.

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