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Wreaking havoc: the feeling of what happens in Katie Mitchell’s Cleansed

Shaughnessy, Nicola (2019) Wreaking havoc: the feeling of what happens in Katie Mitchell’s Cleansed. Performance Research, 24 (5). pp. 123-131. ISSN 1352-8165. (doi:10.1080/13528165.2019.1671729) (Access to this publication is currently restricted. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:74198)

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This essay addresses three themes identified in the 'On Wreckage' volume through its focus on the staging of physical and psychological wreckage, the ethics and agency of spectatorship, and what might be of value in the embodied remains. The paper is drawn from my recent research on Katie Mitchell’s theatre directing and her turn to affective neuroscience, which shifted her attention to spectatorship: ‘It was no longer necessary for the actors to feel the emotions, now what mattered was that the audience felt them.’

Having experienced Mitchell’s controversial staging of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed (2016, National Theatre), a performance that left me deeply affected and is described and remembered in terms of wreckage, I draw upon practitioner interviews and archive research to trace the composition of this creative carnage and its exploration of what Sianne Ngai refers to as ‘ugly feelings.’ Some audience members are reported to have fainted, assaulted by the escalating body mutilation. Critics refer to the play’s visceral power, but for many the catalogue of horrors was overwhelming, ‘a sense-numbing effect that outweighs its redemptive lyricism (Guardian)’. Mitchell, however, describes the play in very different terms as a ‘beautiful artefact’ and a ‘tender’ piece of writing. The acute detail of Mitchell’s realism contributed to the rawness of the sensations experienced, whilst the metatheatrical abstraction of Kane’s postdramatic style creates self-awareness and agency for the spectator, a consciousness of being present as a co-producer of meaning. I consider this in relation to Jill Bennett’s conceptualization of “critical empathy” which she distinguishes from “crude empathy” in her discussion of trauma and contemporary art. My discussion is informed by feminist, phenomenological and affect theory in considering the cultural politics of emotion, engaging with what emotions do and how they circulate as well as what they are. In this body of work there is a critique of accounts that emphasise positive and empowering forms of emotion at the expense of the “ugly” and an endorsement of the ‘need to think about how histories of injury stay alive’ as articulated by Sara Ahmed. This, I suggest is important to the value of the wreckage of Mitchell’s production.

My account brings first and third person perspectives into dialogue in its form and content as, a witness to a trauma that was and wasn’t mine. In questioning what Antonio Damasio refers to as ‘the feeling of what happens’ I investigate the traces of what happened, how and why it matters.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1080/13528165.2019.1671729
Uncontrolled keywords: Performance, spectatorship, Sarah Kane, Katie Mitchell, 'Cleansed', emotion, affect
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Divisions: Faculties > Humanities > School of Arts > Drama and Theatre
Depositing User: Nicola Shaughnessy
Date Deposited: 31 May 2019 12:36 UTC
Last Modified: 06 Feb 2020 16:11 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
Shaughnessy, Nicola:
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