The Only Way Is Essex & Alecky Blythe, where will scripted reality take us next?

When The Only Way Is Essex won the YouTube Audience Award at the BAFTAs earlier this year there were snobby grumblings from the artistic establishment. But there’s more to TOWIE, and shows like it, than people first think. On closer inspection it’s clear they are forging into the same ground as one of the current darlings of the theatrical elite verbatim theatre director/writer Alecky Blythe.

Arguments about the rights and wrongs of verbatim theatre have often been bandied around.  Should we be making art out of the traumatic, exceptional or even downright ordinary incidences of people’s lives? Surely the whole idea is defunct anyway because anything that’s edited has been tampered with in some way and therefore isn’t real. And isn’t ‘bending the truth’ a necessary evil, as straight up delivery real life dialogue is un-dramatic and ‘dry’ (David Hare I’m looking straight at you here).

But we remain obsessed with the idea of truth on stage, of drama made from real people. And now we’re taking it one step further. Blythe’s method of recorded delivery has begun to properly blur the lines between reality and fiction. Here you have actors not only representing us folks at home but acting as vessels to recreate exactly what we say.  These performers listen to a line through headphones and then repeat it, literally verbatim on stage. With this method Blythe is probably closer to Edward Gordon Craig’s uber-marionette ideal than anyone before her; she has created walking and talking machines.

Blythe’s work has come under more fire than most from those who criticise verbatim theatre; people wrongly see her work as unedited reality, when in actuality it is immensely manipulated. Whilst this marriage of truth and fiction causes consternation, irritation and sometimes fury in some, most theatre audiences are lapping it up as the success of London Road attests, people love seeing themselves centre stage.

In fact scripted reality seems to be taking over the world. TOWIE and Made In Chelsea make grotesque but insanely compelling viewing.  Every week millions of people watch a group of young sexy something’s experiencing the highs and lows that any friendship group will recognise (perhaps a little more frequently than they occur in off-screen life) with a wry grin.

Of course these ‘reality’ shows have a little bit of help from their friendly, but undeniably pushy, producers on whether that person really needs to be chucked into a swimming pool or who gets invited to lunch by whom in Cannes, but it’s all real right? To this there is no correct response, because scripted reality does exactly what it says on the tin; it is both real and false at the same time.

In this as an audience we are being taught to accept a type of doublethink of which George Orwell would be proud. The strangeness of this was brought home to me when I encountered someone who could not compute that the two opposing concepts could be true at the same time.  He was unable to marry white and black together whilst I, as an, albeit wary, fan of Blythe’s realised I was sat in some grey area that if dismantled, made no sense at all.

Scripted reality is moving entertainment into a genuinely new, uncharted direction. For years with the growth of audience led artistic experiences and call in shows we’ve been taking more of a role in our own entertainment. We have wanted to place ourselves at the centre of the story. Now that we, Joe Public, are firmly in the spotlight where are we going to go next in terms of creating our own reality? And will it matter that in the end we may not know who’s real and who’s fictional?

Review: Do We Look Like Refugees?!

Written for Exeunt

Alecky Blythe, whose previous work includes The Girlfriend Experience and most recently the acclaimed musical London Road,  is known for giving voices to those whose words are not usually given space in a public arena; even knowing this about her and her work,  it is exciting to see a piece about the aftermath of the 2008 Georgian/Russian war touring England. In 2009 Blythe went to Georgia where she spoke to refugees from the Gori and Tserovani, temporary camps which have long been turning into semi-permanent settlements as the conflict remains unresolved. True to form her interviews were then edited into a 50 minute piece of theatre, with each cough and repetition presented exactly as it was recorded via headphones worn by the performers.

But for all that it promises this is a strangely unfulfilling event, a taster of what could have been. With a running time of just under an hour, the piece allows no room for these voices to grow and the result feels prosaic. Perhaps this is as it should be, the day to day trials of this resolute nation not being the stuff of romantic poetry. Yet the only moment in the production where one feels really connected is when the cast remove their headphones to sing a national folk song; it’s a defiant and universal moment that highlights their iron resolve more powerfully than the edited accounts of their survival ever do.

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London Road

Written for

London Road is something of a surprise. The idea of a piece of musical verbatim theatre based around the murders in 2006 of five sex workers in Ipswich sounds like pure madness. In musicals all the characters know the lyrics and the dance-steps through a weird Borg-like symbiosis; how could such a fantastical form hope to engage with something so grimly real? But Alecky Blythe, composer Adam Cork and director Rufus Norris have succeeded in creating one of the best new musicals of recent years using not just the words but the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ of an embattled community. What’s more they’ve tackled this raw and painful subject matter in a manner that is both respectful and believable, no mean feat.

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