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Conflicted Identities

‘What a Carve up!’ The Eclectic Aesthetics of Postmodernism and the Politics of Diversity in some Examples of Contemporary British Verbatim Theatre

« Testament à l’anglaise » : l’esthétique éclectique du postmodernisme, la politique et la diversité culturelle à travers l’exemple de quelques pièces verbatim en Grande-Bretagne.
Cyrielle Garson et Madelena Gonzalez


Cette étude vise à questionner l’identité britannique contemporaine à travers le prisme du théâtre et interroger le rôle politique de ce dernier. Le théâtre verbatim contemporain(une forme de théâtre documentaire) ne cesse de gagner en visibilité en Grande-Bretagne et s’associe à un questionnement sur les rapports multiples entre politique et esthétique à une époque placée sous le signe du postmodernisme dans les arts dramatiques. Le corpus de spectacles analysés dans cette étude : To be Straight with You (DV8, 2007), The Trouble with Asian Men (Tamasha Theatre, 2005) et Home (Nadia Fall, 2013) permet de dégager un certain nombre de lignes de force qui incitent à remettre en question l’incompatibilité supposée entre postmodernisme et pensée politique, souvent évoquée par des penseurs marxistes comme Terry Eagleton. La méfiance vis-à-vis de tout discours hégémonique, l’implication croissante des minorités dans la société britannique, l’hybridation du verbatim et de la fiction (l’étude s’appuiera aussi sur un exemple de roman social britannique à esthétique postmoderniste, Testament à l’anglaise de Jonathan Coe) et une pluridisciplinarité sur le plan formel sont autant d’éléments qui permettent d’affirmer la présence d’un message politique dans ces pièces qui font appel à des histoires personnelles, mais qui les dépassent aussi. La multiplicité, la vitalité et l’inventivité des formes actuelles du théâtre verbatim témoignent de la volonté de voir émerger une forme d’art dramatique capable de représenter la diversité culturelle qui constitue l’identité britannique contemporaine. Au sein d’une société organisée suivant le modèle du capitalisme tardif où l’art relève de l’industrie et où l’image de l’unité dans la diversité est contestée par les partis d’extrême droite (Respect, Ukip), l’éclectisme esthétique épousé par les pièces étudiées, semble à la fois refléter le malaise d’une nation dont l’idéal multiculturel fut battu en brèche par les attentats de 2005 et proposer un message politique de tolérance plurielle face à une situation de lutte et de crise.

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The documentary theatre form is always already there, but its fate—seemingly— is to be perennially out of sight until it is needed (Paget 2009, 234).

Introducing Verbatim Theatre

1In the context of 21st–century Britain, the resurgence of verbatim drama appears to have been, to some extent, decade-defining for the country’s theatrical landscape. The revitalisation of this particular strand of theatre arguably represents the desire to engage with growing injustice, political apathy and the global recession. On one level, it constitutes ‘an attempt to represent contemporary reality as authentically as possible’ (Pickering and Thompson 216). More specifically in this essay, we want to think again about how verbatim theatre can be said to reflect the current state of Britain. It has become almost standard in the new millennium to connect this particular strand of performance with concepts around political theatre and reality theatre, in other words, a type of theatre that responds to and represents real people and events, and minorities. We will now attempt a working definition of verbatim theatre and give a very brief account of the form’s genesis.

2Verbatim theatre, as we know it today, is generally understood as a subcategory of documentary theatre whose name, literally, ‘word-for-word,’ refers to a particular approach to dramatic and performance composition. At its purest, the process involves a playwright (sometimes accompanied by actors) interviewing a group of people, often those involved in a specific event, situation or community, around which a stage play will be constructed. The writer collects their words, transcribes and then edits those exact words into a coherent narrative structure, to be performed, typically, by professional actors and, in some cases, by the real-life subjects themselves in front of an audience. This type of theatre appeared on the British stage in the 60s and was mainly a technique used in an ‘alternative’ theatrical tradition, opposed to the dominant view of culture, that is to say ‘counter-cultural.’ Indeed, traditionally, Left Theatre in the United Kingdom used verbatim theatre as one of its staple techniques. Today, verbatim theatre’s incorporation into the ‘mainstream’ (Cantrell 1) forces us to question its supposedly subversive qualities and its potential for resisting the model proposed by globalisation and widespread cultural dissemination. As ever, what is appealing about this currently mainstream theatre form is its strangeness and uniqueness. How can we reconcile the sheer fakery of theatre with ‘the notion that we are getting things “word for word”, straight from the mouths of those “involved”’ (Bottoms 51)?

3In other ways verbatim theatre goes against the literary dramatic tradition of British theatre from Shakespeare to the most contemporary of dramatists such as Martin Crimp or Philip Ridley. British theatre has always been very much a playwright’s medium but verbatim demands that we re-examine what we expect of the theatre as a form of social intervention. Understandably, there is much resistance to it within established theatre circles as being devoid of an aesthetic or any claim to recognizable dramatic writing, in short, it is viewed as some type of subgenre. Is this new form merely a modish gesture towards mass techno culture based on a mosaic of image and music, eager to attract new, younger audiences reared on the World Wide Web and reality TV, now superseded by YouTube, or do its eclectic performance strategies enable it to communicate important messages about the current state of Britain to a wider audience?

4The main argument of our paper, that this is indeed the case, to some extent at least, takes its impetus from Jonathan Coe’s 1994 novel, What a Carve Up! whose title is presciently illustrative of Cameron’s ‘broken Britain’ in its terrifying depiction of the fragmentation of British society and its social model during the Thatcher years, a state of affairs which was in no way remedied by New Labour’s consistent encouragement of speculative venture capitalism, making London the heart of an aggressively market-oriented economy. It will be remarked in passing that Coe’s novel is suitably eclectic in form and genre and exhibits all the traits of the playful self-conscious postmodern novel, while at the same time being ‘consumably realist in content,’ according to Terry Eagleton (1994, para. 6), a trait it shares with the plays we propose to discuss. The current state of the arts, including theatre, which has been subsumed into the culture ‘industry,’ raises the question of just how far cultural production can avoid being instantly recuperated as a form of niche marketing of diversity, for example. Running on parallel lines to the financial boom and bust of this new ‘big’ society, is a suitably Victorian unease about how the other half lives, relayed daily by the popular press and media. The assimilation of ‘minorities,’ the reality and validity of multicultural Britain in the wake of the London bombings in 2005 are particularly pressing issues, as indeed is British identity per se, as the referendum on Scottish independence recently illustrated. Significantly, a new verbatim project on this very subject, ‘No Border,’ was launched by writer/director Carla Kingham and toured England in Autumn 2014. We have chosen three verbatim plays which deal with topical issues in order to examine how they reflect, refract, comment upon, and seek to alter, the current state of Britain.

5In October 2004, the National Theatre, under the directorship of Nicholas Hytner, launched a series of five half-hour verbatim monologues entitled National Headlines to coincide with the premiere production of David Hare’s Stuff Happens, a verbatim play about the Iraq War. These plays by major British playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill, Gregory Burke, Tanika Gupta and Moira Buffini tackled political questions ranging from the state of the National Health Service to the treatment of asylum seekers. Each of these performances was systematically followed up with a discussion about the points raised, with participating panels including politicians, journalists, workers and campaigners proposing a range of perspectives. The series enjoyed a second lease of life in 2006 and four more plays were commissioned: Richard Bean was to write on the topic of faith in The Word of God and Lucy Prebble on immigration in No Zealot like a Convert, to name only two of them.

6These are by no means unusual examples of British verbatim theatre dealing with the most pressing issues at hand over the last two decades. We could mention, for instance, David Hare’s The Permanent Way (2003) about the privatisation of the railways, or his The Power of Yes (2009) which deals with the financial crisis, Robin Soans’ Life after Scandal (2007), centred on the power of the media and public disgrace, the Tricycle Theatre’s The Colour of Justice (1999) about the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and institutional racism, Alecky Blythe’s Voices from the Mosque (2011) about the impact and response to 9/11 on its tenth anniversary, Look Left Look Right’s Yesterday Was a Weird Day (2005) on the London bombings of July 7, 2005 and DV8 Physical Theatre’s Can We Talk About This? (2011) which deals with multiculturalism. The revival of verbatim theatre and its proliferation on the British stage was seen by many major critics, directors and playwrights, such as David Edgar, Michael Billington, Aleks Sierz and Andrew Haydon, as the end of a theatrical tradition deemed out of touch and a welcome return to a politically engaged, up-to-date and thorough examination of current affairs in the theatre. As Elisabeth Angel-Perez reminds us, ‘In the 1990s, verbatim theatre emerges as one of the most interesting attempts at regenerating political theatre. Verbatim consists in going beyond the concept of (political) representation (considered obsolete because forever insufficiently representative) and in voicing the people in the street’ (Angel-Perez 65). Verbatim theatre thus seemed to have reopened the dialogue between theatre and British society by addressing more directly political and social issues. Or did it? Interestingly, for British playwright and scholar, Dan Rebellato, this picture of the contemporary British stage is overly simplistic, if not false. More narrowly, he indicates in ‘From the State of the Nation to Globalization: Shifting Political Agendas in Contemporary British Playwriting’ that ‘Globalization has created dramatic and new conditions’ and that the ‘rules of political theatre have been transformed in response’ (259). Hence, contrary to the view put forward by some critics, political theatre in Britain was never in decline as such, if we are to follow Rebellato’s reasoning, that is.

  • 1 We refer to Jean Baudrillard’s definitions of these terms as explained in L’échange symbolique et l (...)

7However, we must now concede that this renaissance of verbatim theatre in Britain has been a complex and contradictory process. Aesthetically, the new millennium has by no means seen a complete re-adoption of documentary realism; instead we have seen a serious attempt to reconcile realism with ‘the interceding influence of postmodernism’ (Radosavljevic 147). Indeed, more and more verbatim performances transgress the borders between these two realms. In other words, the complexities of a postmodern aesthetic are subsumed beneath the naturalist rendering of previously uttered words and speech patterns in performance. Verbatim theatre, then, would seem to undermine those concepts without which it can hardly be conceived of as political theatre and thus to present us with a contradiction: ‘the apparent paradox of a form that is required to rely on the real for its political authority, whilst simultaneously remaining suspicious of the very notion of the real as dictated by the poststructuralist scepticism in this particular historical moment’ (Tomlin 2013, 115). Verbatim’s very nature appears in direct contradiction with the notion of the hyperreal and the simulacrum so often associated with the aesthetics of postmodernism.1 Yet, recent verbatim performances, including the case studies that make up the core of this paper, leave barely any aspect of ‘conventional political theatre’ (Harvie 62) unchallenged, even though they arguably share a ‘focus on minority groups and their unheard voices’ (Lane 66).

8We would now like to suggest that the postmodernist aesthetic chosen as a vehicle for the verbatim strategies in the British theatre mainstream presents new forms of engagement with the political that have affinities with the state-of-the-nation play. To test this idea, this study will consequently examine three different styles of verbatim performance that deploy a fragmented postmodernist aesthetic to transmit a ‘political’ message: Home by Nadia Fall, a verbatim musical on youth homelessness performed at the National Theatre in 2013; Tamasha Theatre’s The Trouble with Asian Men (2005), a headphone-verbatim piece on issues concerning immigrant communities and identity and DV8’s To Be Straight with You (2007), an example of physical verbatim theatre dealing with the intersection of homosexuality and religion.

9By examining these three examples, we shall not only discover a wide range of verbatim strategies and offer a theoretical context for their analysis, we shall also discuss the possibilities of political playmaking in an age of globalization ‘characterized by public disengagement and detachment’ (Kritzer 26), as well as look afresh at some of the traditional core elements of verbatim plays as political theatre.

Upsurges of the Postmodern in Verbatim Theatre

  • 2 It will be remembered that Jencks distinguishes the postmodern condition from the postmodern moveme (...)

10This section attempts to articulate the ‘contradictory’ double aesthetic stance that verbatim theatre adopts in the new millennium. It will be remembered that when the American architect, Charles Jencks, first started describing the postmodernist aesthetic of the 80s and 90s, he identified double-coding as its principal characteristic: ‘Double-coding, to put it abstractly, is a strategy of affirming and denying the existing power structures at the same time, inscribing and challenging different tastes and opposite forms of discourse. This double-voiced discourse has its own peculiar laws and beauties and constitutes the fundamental agenda of the post-modern movement’ (Jencks 1992, 13).2 As we will see, there is a case for ascribing a similar strategy to the examples we have chosen to examine.

11Documentary realism is arguably considered as the normative mode of presentation for verbatim theatre. Less often acknowledged, however, is an equally persistent strand of verbatim work in Britain that involves a move away from realism as the anchoring element in performance, a particularly rich resource of postmodernist aesthetic variants that this study seeks to uncover. These performances, we contend, crucially alter the reading of verbatim theatre as a realist political art form. This is where other variables come to the fore such as the use of technology and the questions it raises about the verbatim aesthetic. As Carol Martin has persuasively argued in relation to post-9/11 documentary theatre: ‘here the technological postmodern meets oral-theatre culture’ (2006, 9). In this sense, technology can be regarded as an elaborate medium that foregrounds deconstructive systems of representation, altering the realist physical space that verbatim theatre traditionally inhabits. In The Trouble with Asian Men, the edited words of sixteen men and nine women are intermittently relayed through two actors using an MP3 player to repeat the exact words as recorded. Thus we are confonted with a set of ideas and short scenes dealing with what it means to be an Asian man in the Western world in the 21st-century: ‘You know, you’ve lost the traditional way, and then it’s like how do we re-establish something here which doesn’t lose some of that stuff, of…everybody has to just re…investigate their identity in some way, and find places, you know?’ (46). Thanks to the technique of headphone verbatim, form and content merge here in order to highlight the fragmented identities of confused subjects, struggling to express themselves in a society which reflects diversity but has lost a sense of wider community. In To Be Straight With You, technology overlaps and intersects with the performers’ bodies so that they ultimately become out of sync and reveal cracks in the totalising realist narrative which in turn suggests possible resistance to dominant ideologies. In Home, the musical component (singing and beatboxing) creates a starkly disjunctive effect that disrupts ordinary verbatim storytelling and makes the spectator aware of the constructed nature of the reality being shown. In the following example, the characters at Target East (a foyer for two hundred and ten young people in East London) are answering questions about what home means to them. When it comes to the security guard, he appears with a guitar:

SECURITY GUARD. Yes. Well I would say, personally, I would say Target is my home because I spend the majority of my time here.
I feel there’s no place like it
That it’s warm when you feel it on both sides
They say you can’t live without it
So what does that mean for my life?
SHARON. Home is the most important place…for anybody and, for me, it’s a place for, to relax, it’s the safest and most securest place as far as I’m concerned that what you should be and it’s about family and… and enjoying that time at… home.
I’m longing for those keys
Oh how I’m longing for those keys. (14–15)

12In other words, the use of verbatim material in these plays is predicated on a realist epistemology, but its experience in performance is equally dependent on an engagement with postmodernist tropes. In a different article, Carol Martin remarks that verbatim theatre’s ‘strategies are often postmodern, especially in asserting that truth is contextual, multiple, and subject to manipulation; that language frames perception’ (2010, 3). She also enumerates a series of characteristics inherent to this contemporary theatre practice that are ‘the particularization of subjectivity, the rejection of universality, the acknowledgement of the contradictions of staging the real within the frame of the fictional, and a questioning of the relationship between facts and truth’ (2010, 3). It is not difficult to discern a link between such assertions and Jean-François Lyotard’s scepticism towards grand narratives in La Condition postmoderne. Rapport sur le savoir (1979).

13All three works in our corpus are intermedial productions where video projections, audio-digital technology, onstage montage and its relation to the verbatim material assume a crucial role. The Trouble with Asian Men, for example, illustrates the skilful interweaving of the verbatim testimonies with its mediating process as each performer is holding a black box (a receiver that is linked to a transmitter) and is visibly wearing earphones. As can be seen from our examples, technology is most frequently used to subvert hegemonic forms by favouring a fractured mode of representation in line with a postmodernist aesthetic and sometimes highlighting a self-reflexive or metatheatrical element reminiscent of the techniques of the postmodernist novel we touched upon in our introduction. This is not to imply that the three plays fail to retain the basic procedures of realism. As is the case of Coe’s novel, they may be consumably realist and playfully postmodern at the same time. For instance, Nadia Fall’s Home commits itself to representing the reality of homelessness amongst young people in Britain and the style of acting is as naturalistic as possible. Furthermore, the fact that it is based on real speech makes it ‘the ultimate in lifelike-ese’ (Dorney 223), as is clear in the following dialogue between Tattoo Boy and social worker Sharon in a section entitled ‘This is England’:

TATOO BOY. It’s the culture. It’s the culture of the area, it’s the…it’s…people…I dunno, just making up their own rules yeah d’you know what I mean, just thinking they can do I dunno, it’s just the culture, the culture the life in London and that, d’you know what I mean? It’s just the way it is. (39)

14Even if the constituent elements in this process reflect postmodernist aesthetics, they leave the realist verbatim apparatus partially unchallenged. These competing aesthetic impulses that are documentary realism and postmodernist aesthetics increasingly overlap and intersect in the new millennium and, consequently, this poses an intriguing question that throws doubt on the whole verbatim theatre enterprise, as we shall see in our second part.

The Possibility of a Political Postmodernist Verbatim Theatre

15As the title of this part suggests, verbatim theatre’s politics equally lie at the heart of an apparent sprawling contradiction and it remains to attempt to elucidate what these particular plays accomplish by resorting to what we have called ‘the eclectic aesthetics of postmodernism’. In large part, the potential of verbatim theatre to disrupt dominant ideological certainties as a ‘counter-discursive medium’ (Filewod 2009, 69), does not sit easily with the goals and principles of postmodernism. Attilo Favorini in his anthology of documentary plays even ventured to raise the following question: ‘Is the idea of postmodern documentary oxymoronic’ (xxxvi)? This extreme view would have us believe that a postmodernist aesthetic is capable of compromising the politics of a verbatim piece in a climate where dissent is often absorbed by the passive consumerism of the postmodern condition: ‘the most recent manifestations of Documentary Theatre hinge upon a post-modern political conjuncture in which it is increasingly difficult to feel that dissent challenges power in any meaningful way’ (Paget 2008, 139). Wessendorf articulates this state of affairs in the following manner:

The major challenges for a postmodern drama intent on tackling the pressing issues of our time is how to combine and integrate a postmodern aesthetic that playfully explores dramatic form with a dramaturgy that critically engages with current events without falling into the trap of (re-)producing the master discourses of traditional political theatre. (Wessendorf 332–333)

  • 3 The term comes from Hans-Thies Lehmann’s seminal work of the same name and designates here a clear (...)

16The plays under scrutiny in our study answer, to some extent, the aforementioned challenge in different ways. Home calls for ‘social change’ (6) and even aspires ‘to impact policy affecting tangible changes in the way provisions are made for vulnerable young people in the UK’ (7). However, the play seems to articulate critical distance and immersion at the same time by frequently casting the audience as the interviewer throughout the performance: ‘My mum’s house really…No, I consider my place as a home as well, here as well . . . well —(Smiling.) What led me to living at Target is basically I got kicked out of home when I was seventeen I didn’t want to go back . . . Um, no. Because I’m very to m…I keep myself to myself’ (12). As in The Trouble with Asian Men, the fragmentation of language goes hand in hand with the disintegration of the subject, self-consciously struggling to find coherent expression in a society where family and community are in ruins. In DV8’s To Be Straight With You, we can identify a tension that lays bare within the postdramatic form3 the constructedness of its own narratives whilst simultaneously seeking to strengthen those very same narratives to achieve a particular political effect: a message linked to tolerance and diversity against homophobia and religious bigotry in contemporary Britain. Moreover, as Liz Tomlin has pointed out, these plays also share ‘an allegiance to those groups who are marginalized by the dominant economic, social and political systems of the time’ (2010, 168), in other words within the ‘state’ of late capitalism currently obtaining within the United Kingdom. Thus a political practice of verbatim, which could also be defined as postmodernist, seeks not only to challenge the grand narratives, by replacing them with little narratives, but to do so with the belief that theatre can foster dialogue about the society in which we live. For Ankur Bahl who acted in To Be Straight with You, the theatrical treatment of minority voices is undoubtedly ethical: ‘One year after joining DV8, I can tell you that you can’t be in this show without tremendous grit, determination, persistence, and a steadfast commitment to the power of theatre to achieve social change.’

17In The Trouble with Asian Men, a self-reflexive framework is heightened through the headphone-verbatim technique of performance that crucially avoids a singular ideological narrative and offers instead a plurality of positions, consonant with scepticism towards metanarratives, not to mention distrust of cultural stereotypes and awareness of various forms of interpellation. Headphone-verbatim theatre is ‘a paperless form of performance featuring the faithful reproduction of speech patterns whereby actors are required to wear headphones and speak along to a sequence of carefully edited audio interviews’ (Garson 51). This fragmented performance mode offers recognisable glimpses of our world while wrestling with the very idea of representation itself.

18Although it cannot exist totally outside the arts industry, verbatim theatre presents a challenge to that industry in the sense that it largely does away with individual authorship and relies on collective processes of ‘creation’; it denies the myth of the inspired artist stretching from Shakespeare through Romanticism to Modernism. While using the eclectic aesthetic of postmodernism which can be considered (with Eagleton) as participating in the logic of late capitalism and the consumer society (‘. . . postmodernism puts its trust in pluralism—in a social order which is as diverse and inclusive as possible. . . Most of the time, at least, it is eager to mix together as many diverse cultures as possible, so that it can peddle its commodities to them all’ [Eagleton 2004,18-19]), it also fundamentally resists ownership of art and thus the current ‘industry’ paradigm where creativity and innovation are considered as consumer products. In this sense it can be seen as political and even subversive in the most unexpected of ways.

19In contrast to a contemporary production such as Punchdrunk’s site-specific Sleep no More (2011) where a postmodern aesthetic is used purely for artistic effect rather than communicating a message and thus constitutes a passive manifestation of the postmodern condition, our corpus could be seen as corresponding to a form of political performance and representation which Jencks sees as characteristic of the postmodern movement or agenda and defines as ‘restructive or constructive or revisionary or ecological post-modernism’ (Jencks 2000, 246). Although there are easily observable distinctions of tone, style, even of political views between the three plays, they arguably harbour surprisingly subversive potential in relation to the current uneasy state of Britain. Crucially, in 2013, the BBC and Channel 4 deliberately turned their back on Lloyd Newson’s company, DV8 Physical Theatre, regarding their latest verbatim productions. On the official company website, they made it clear that this was an act of censorship and stated categorically:

Can We Talk About This? is the company’s most recent stage production. It is a verbatim theatre work dealing with freedom of speech, multiculturalism and Islam. From the 1989 book burnings of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, to the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh and the controversy of the ‘Muhammad cartoons,’ the production examined how these events have reflected and influenced multicultural policies, press freedom and artistic censorship. . . . We felt that it would be an excellent production to adapt for film, and approached both the BBC and Channel 4. C4’s commissioning editor for Arts, Tabitha Jackson, who had seen the live performance in London, championed the project, but it did not get approval by the Channel 4 bosses. BBC’s commissioning editor for Music and Events, Jan Younghusband, who had commissioned The Cost of Living while at Channel 4, met with us, but informed us later that it was turned down for budget reasons. We offered to discuss the finances, but did not hear from her again. We subsequently wrote to Jan Younghusband asking her if she would consider filming our prior work To Be Straight With You, also a verbatim work, about Christianity, Judaism and Islam in relationship to homosexuality as she had expressly told the artistic director how important this work was. We heard nothing back. (DV8 2014, paras. 3–6)

20The BBC and Channel 4 seemed to undergo a change of heart and declined to televise both plays, with the effect that their potential impact on public opinion was constrained. One might interpret this as an attempt to silence and supress what may have been perceived as offensive, politically risky, lacking commercial potential, or simply as not endorsing the most recent values of the BBC. Taken together, these separate cases constitute a potent reminder of verbatim theatre’s capacity as a platform from which to motivate political actions, a point to which we shall now turn our attention.

Collaborative Poetics and the Commitment to the Social

21In the new millennium, verbatim theatre inhabits a much more uncertain political context (Paget 2008, Tomlin 2013, Waters). We have argued that the eclectic aesthetics of postmodernism present in recent verbatim performances expanded the terms through which we can think of its politics. To Be Straight with You, Home and The Trouble with Asian Men are successful, relevant examples of postmodern political theatre in the verbatim genre from the last ten years because they convincingly employ postmodernist aesthetic devices to advance an agenda of plurality and difference. As Auslander has argued in reference to the radical theatre of the 1960s, such performances ‘deserve a place in an account of postmodern performance on account of the ways they destabilized the hierarchical apparatus of modern theatre through their frequent elimination of the playwright in favor of collectively devised performances’ (114). However, verbatim performances do not fully embrace a postmodernist agenda because they rest on realist and epistemological assumptions, as much as on the ontological, and thus present a paradox, if we follow Brian McHale’s theory of the dominant, first elaborated in relation to postmodernist fiction (10). In our opinion, these performances retain realism and the aim of political efficacy within a postmodern aesthetic practice that seeks strategies to evade or directly challenge the systematic contradictions of late capitalism in its global manifestations. For Carol Martin, this may point towards a revision or mutation of postmodernism and perhaps even articulate ‘a post-postmodern theoretical perspective’ (2010, 3) that ‘permits the recognition that . . . postmodern techniques . . . can be and are used for very different ends . . . scepticism and irony are still present but no longer center stage’ (2010, 3–4). Following this argument, verbatim theatre, as a fascinating theoretical anomaly, might represent at least a preliminary step towards a post-postmodern theatre. No doubt this is the kernel of a new aesthetic attitude that deploys postmodern strategies within a more nuanced and sophisticated version of realism in order to produce a theatre that reconnects and reconstructs, thus re-engaging with social issues.

22In the United Kingdom, the ruthless pursuit of profit and subservience to the tyranny of the market has led to the disappearance of the human and a break with the post-war social contract, as Coe’s novel so cogently demonstrates. However, since the publication of the novel in 1994, the situation has worsened considerably and Margaret Thatcher’s prediction that ‘There is no such thing as society’ has become a reality in contemporary Britain with the increasing marginalization of large sections of the population and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor. Situated within the new neo-liberal paradigm that makes of art an ‘industry’ where creativity is bought and sold, verbatim plays both reflect this abysmal state of affairs, but also struggle to provide an alternative. This would seem to suggest that they are ‘complicitously critical’ in the sense in which Linda Hutcheon defines this mode in her The Politics of Postmodernism (2), but also go beyond this merely ironical and sceptical posture to propose a renewed commitment to the social. They express this commitment in innovative ways, thanks to an eclectic aesthetic mode which seeks to represent the diversity of contemporary Britain in a realistic manner but also to examine the challenge it poses to the current state of the nation and thus to use it as a springboard for change. As Coe’s novel suggests, when society is carved up between different individual interests, the social disintegrates and a latent state of war prevails. Verbatim theatre aims to reinstate community through its collaborative poetics (divorced from individual ownership) and, if not to put an end to the violence of life as it is currently experienced by many in Britain, then at least to imagine possible alternatives to the increasingly unendurable status quo.

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1 We refer to Jean Baudrillard’s definitions of these terms as explained in L’échange symbolique et la mort: ‘Aujourd’hui, tout le système bascule dans l’indétermination, toute réalité est absorbée par l’hyperrealité du code et de la simulation. C’est un principe de simulation qui nous régit désormais en place de l’ancien principe de réalité’ (1976, 8–9) and in Simulacres et Simulations: ‘La simulation n’est plus celle d’un territoire, d’un être référentiel, d’une substance. Elle est la génération par les modèles d’un réel sans origine ni réalité: hyperréel’ (1981, 10).

2 It will be remembered that Jencks distinguishes the postmodern condition from the postmodern movement or agenda in the following manner: ‘The post-modern agenda has many normative aspects to it that are positive: a value system that includes the ecological movement, pluralism, double coding, ecofeminism, and resisting the negative aspects of modernity, etc. Whereas the postmodern condition is growing in spite of whether anyone wants it: the electronic revolution, the condition of tertiary/quartenary economy, the postindustrial society, Madonna on MTV, and other aspects. It is part of the consumer society’ (Jencks 2000, 246).

3 The term comes from Hans-Thies Lehmann’s seminal work of the same name and designates here a clear innovation in dance and choreography that eschews traditional theatre-making practices in Britain. Lehmann explains that the ‘step to postdramatic theatre is taken only when the theatrical means beyond language are positioned equally alongside the text’ (55).

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Cyrielle Garson et Madelena Gonzalez, « ‘What a Carve up!’ The Eclectic Aesthetics of Postmodernism and the Politics of Diversity in some Examples of Contemporary British Verbatim Theatre »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 49 | 2015, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2014, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Cyrielle Garson

Cyrielle Garson is a member of the research group ‘Théâtre(s) Politique(s)’ and belongs to the interdisciplinary research team ‘Cultural Identity, Texts and Theatricality’ (ICTT—ÉA 4277) at the University of Avignon. In the context of her Ph.D research, she has recently published an article on ‘headphone-verbatim theatre’ for Issue 2.1 of the Journal of Contemporary Drama in English and her forthcoming publications include two chapters on verbatim theatre to appear respectively in Theatre Plays on British Television, to be edited by Amanda Wrigley and John Wyver with Manchester University Press (2015) and in Aesthetics and Ideology in Contemporary Literature and Drama, to be edited by René Agostini and Madelena Gonzalez with Cambridge Scholars Press (2015).

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Madelena Gonzalez

Madelena Gonzalez is Professor of Anglophone Literature and head of the interdisciplinary research team ‘Cultural Identity, Texts and Theatricality’ at the University of Avignon; she has published widely on contemporary literature, theatre and culture.

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