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Hysteria: important ideas in search of a theatrical focus

by | Sep 21, 2019 | Review | 0 comments

Direct Theatre Collective is presenting Hysteria at the Havana Theatre.

Theatre of protest. (Photo by Rae MacEachern-Eastwood/Catchfall Photography)

A furious artist once told me, “I don’t care about structure! I don’t want to hear about structure!” — or words to that effect. She should probably not read this review.

In Hysteria, playwrights Jill Raymond and Lauren Martin take on a couple of enormous subjects: rape culture and the social absolutism of online/app culture.

We’re in a dystopian near future that strongly resembles our dystopian present. A young entrepreneur named Alex has invented what she calls the Right Consent app. When a couple of people — or presumably more — are about to have sex, they register their mutual enthusiasm on the app. In theory, this promotes explicit discussion and agreement, reducing the incidence of both sexual violence and false accusation.

Once consent has been registered, it can’t be rescinded: our future selves seem to have forgotten about ongoing consent, which is a gaping hole in the script’s logic, but let’s accept that as a premise for now because, if we don’t, the whole thing falls apart.

Facebook likes — and the like — have metastasized into overt social engineering and government-sanctioned pressures to conform. It’s there in commercial applications: when a character named Jo is heading out for the day, Jo’s Alexa-like monitor challenges her on the length of her skirt. Everybody is obsessed with their “social scores”, which are determined through electronic monitoring and rely on monolithic notions of “appropriateness”. Eventually, the Right Consent app becomes mandatory: if you delete it, you give up all claims to legal and medical recourse.

There are some cool ideas here, the areas under investigation are important, and, in some ways, their theatricalization works.

Appearing as The Scandal Sisters in a song off the top, for instance, the production’s five performers sing a perky ditty about experiences of sexual violation: this juxtaposition of form and content speaks to the confusion about how the hell women are supposed to deal with fucked-up social norms, with the expectation that they should smile and accommodate bad behaviour. And, in the inevitable conclusion of a narrative thread in which Jo runs afoul of the Right Consent app’s shortcomings, actor Jill Raymond keeps her character’s emotions affectingly close to her chest.

That said, Hysteria doesn’t have a middle, so there’s virtually no sense of momentum or progression. It feels like the story of Jo’s relationship with the app wants to provide the narrative spine, but the majority of that material is set-up; it takes for frickin’ ever to get to any narrative action.

Instead, Hysteria contents itself with a variety of theatrical diversions. There are more songs, none of which advance the story or even deepen the exploration of a central idea. There’s a puppet clitoris. Groups of characters chat and we get into eddies involving secondary and even tertiary figures.

It’s not that any of this material is bad; it’s just not focused.

Still, Hysteria will probably be popular. That’s because it’s talking about important stuff — even though its vocabulary is messy.

HYSTERIA By Jill Raymond and Lauren Martin. Music by Jill Raymond and Florence Reiher. Based on the original ensemble production from 2018. Directed by Lauren Martin and Ariel Martz-Oberlander. A Direct Theatre Collective production. At the Havana Theatre on Friday, September 20. Continues until September 28. Tickets.


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