‘What If I told You’ review – Blurring the line between audience and participation

‘What If I told You’ review – Blurring the line between audience and participation

I’ve seen pieces of theatre that have involved audience participation. I’ve heard of pieces of dance that have involved the dancers moving amongst the audience. I’ve even heard of a play that involved the audience being blindfolded and then cuddled for an hour by the actors. But I’ve never before walked into an auditorium to find the seats cordoned off, a big barrier leaving the audience nowhere to stand but on the stage itself. As the lights went down and a woman emerged from the wings, taking her position amongst the crowd onstage, a murmured voice could be heard from the audience: “why can’t we just sit down like a normal play?”

‘But I’ve never before walked into an auditorium to find the seats cordoned off, a big barrier leaving the audience nowhere to stand but on the stage itself’

What If I Told You is the first solo show from Pauline Mayers of the Leeds-based Mayers Ensemble, and is performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of their Furnace Festival, aimed at showcasing new local writing. Loosely based on Mayers’ own experiences as a professional dancer, manoeuvring her way through the implicit racism of the British arts, the piece also charts the career of J. Marion Sims, frequently cited as ‘the father of modern gynaecology’ and a man who bought African-American female slaves to experiment upon. One woman was subjected to an excruciating series of thirty experiments.

Mayers’ ability to intertwine her own experiences with those of a racist makes for an hour in which empathy is not so much encouraged as squeezed out of its audience.

Mayers’ ability to intertwine her own experiences with those of a racist makes for an hour in which empathy is not so much encouraged as squeezed out of its audience. Caught in this wholly unique space, the audience finds itself hugging each other, joining in with Mayers’ choreography and forming freeze-frames from Sims’ operating theatre. This participation was paired with solo scenes from Mayers, where moments from her life jumped out into the audience, provoking sympathy, respect and anger. “I don’t know what to do with you,” Mayers dance teacher once said to her, “I’ve never taught a black body before.”

“I don’t know what to do with you,” Mayers dance teacher once said to her, “I’ve never taught a black body before.”

In a sense, Mayers’ intention does not appear to be the creation of pleasing art. There a few moments which pander to the conventions of what might be termed traditional fringe theatre. For here, Mayers is not dealing with the fringe, the outsiders, the other; she is dealing with the universal. And it shines.

William Rees-Arnold

(Image courtesy of Mayers Ensemble)

 

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