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Shock Factor Theatre

Has "shock factor" in theatre gone too far?

There is performance in a car crash. We can all cover our faces and turn away, but the majority of
us will peer at the wreckage through spread fingers and shocked faces. It’s natural, nothing to
be ashamed of. In fact, we can see in our own media that people have started to celebrate it.
Shock and horror has become the main feature on our stages. People are embracing their animal
instincts and admitting that they want to be disgusted. There are plenty of what we would consider
“edgy” plays: media that uses shock as a way of attracting the audience to important themes that
relate to present-day issues.

But has it gone too far? Why are we enjoying shocking theatre again? Is it because of how it allows us to escape our own issues, whilst not ignoring the plights of others and the present state of the world? Or is it just because we can? Having just seen a performance of Richard the Third, involving buckets of blood and soil that, not even seasoned theatre-goers seemed to understand, I’m starting to wonder if theatre is losing its sense of identity.

There are genres of theatre that focus on the shock factor. Movements like dadaism and
surrealism thrive off shock and confusion, however, in these instances, there is a method to the
madness; the shock was used as a means of making sense of the confusing and upsetting world
surrounding these movements. Where is the theatre now? Can we find the reasoning in the blood
and soil on stage?

Well, let me take you back to the heart of shock theatre. When we think of shock, we think of
horror. Nothing like blood, guts and gore to get the audience fainting in their seats. French
playwright, Oscar Méténier opened in 1897 The Theatre du Grand-Guignol (The Big Puppet show)
dedicating to exposing its Parisian punters to their true fears from the government to gore. From its
opening in 1897 until its closing in 1962, The Grand Guignol provided its Parisian punters with an
absolute commitment to shock; warming blood backstage to throw on faint hearted French
audience members. One actress mentioned she had been killed over 72 times. Now that’s

Thinking today how much we all secretly enjoy a good amoral horror flick, why hasn’t The Grand
Guignol become a staple in theatre? Why aren’t directors collecting eyeballs from local butchers? Why isn’t there any blood being heated backstage, with three different vats in varying colours on
hand, for bodies going through varying levels of decomposition? Well, when World War II hit, no one
could stomach the horror on the stage anymore because it was all around them. The images and
information flooding from concentration camps was far too real for the average horror fan. So, not
long after the war began, The Grand Guignol closed its doors for the last time.

So what’s happened since then? Why are buckets of blood and filth being welcomed back to the
stage with open arms? Is there not enough horror on the news; do we really need to replicate it;
what should be our escape? Like anything, you can do it if you do it well, and horror has become,
more than anything else, a distraction instead of an escape.

Instead of distracting audience members with complex characters and plot in order to, not only drag focus away from present-day horror, but also return audience members to unbearable news stories of death and destruction with a better and wider mind, theatre has become a coloured toy in front of a child; a magpie’s shiny ring.

“It’s not only gore that shocks and distracts an audience. Technology, whilst it can be wonderful and can certainly build a play into something extraordinary (see People, Places and Things), can also be a static TV at the front of a classroom, pointless and glaringly obvious.”

A while back, I was blessed to have the opportunity to see Antony Sher as King Lear. Being one of
my favourite Shakespearean plays, alongside having throughout enjoyed his performance as
Falstaff, I had high hopes. All was well until a hideously large perspex box was placed on stage in
order to show the audience the true gore of Gloucester’s eyes popping out. I winced. The perspex
box, in the centre of high-quality acting and production, drew me straight out of the production. I was distracted from the themes and heart-wrenching tragedy of Gloucester’s eye loss for the sake of cheap gore.

It’s not only gore that shocks and distracts an audience. Technology, whilst it can be wonderful and
can certainly build a play into something extraordinary (see People, Places and Things), can also
be a static TV at the front of a classroom, pointless and glaringly obvious. Another wonderful actor,
Simon Russell Beale, performed in the RSC’s production of The Tempest for the second time.
However, instead of reprising his role of Ariel, he captivated the audience with an excellent
performance as Prospero. His previous role of Ariel was taken by Intel?

Well, a hologram was used and… my main memory of the performance is the glitching of the hologram and the cutting out of the sound. Was it worth impressing and shocking me with an Ariel that could fly and cast spells?

How many children did Lady Macbeth have? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how Gloucester
loses his eyes, and it doesn’t matter what Ariel looks like. What matters is how they affect the
performance. Theatre companies and directors aren’t considering how shock effects the audience; they’re just using shock for the sake of shock, yet performing plays with themes intrinsic to the effects the performance has on the audience. English theatre is currently in a state of limbo.
Pieces are claiming to have deep and meaningful themes, yet directors aren’t correlating a play’s
visuals with these claims. We, as an audience, are confused and I think its time we got the
theatrical clarity we deserve.

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