30 April 2017
Theatre’s Infinitely Ambiguous Message in Mossoux Bonte’s Whispers
When one goes to the theatre, there is typically a small amount of time before the show, sometimes just five minutes, in which the audience members must occupy themselves. I spend these moments preparing for the show in any way that I can, whether that means scanning the programme note, clearing my mind of the day’s events, or familiarizing myself with the space by studying the stage or room. With Mossoux Bonte’s Whispers, I did not have a programme note before the show, so I did not have any prior knowledge of what I was about to experience before it began. I had also been rushing to the theatre that day, and barely had any time to settle into my seat and begin this process before the show commenced. So I experienced the show with a completely detached perspective – a blank slate.
Perhaps my blank slate enhanced the emotional response Mossoux Bonte’s show elicits. Whispers is a show that aims to make its audience feel unsettled, which is a method of unconventional theatre. More traditional shows invite the audience to connect with characters and plot and, though they may experience negative emotions like sympathy or fear, the audience can make sense of what they feel due to relatable elements within the show. Alternatively, Whispers offers no discernible narrative, instead embracing an unwelcoming attitude by relying on one actor to portray one character amidst an eerie setting of unfamiliar sound and light production. Everything from the misty stage to the ambiguous costumes gives off a mysterious tone that is never eased.
Whispers is a show that is carried by lighting, sound, and the movement of its sole actor rather than a script or narrative. A new world is created with the unearthly score, which is music of the most contemporary and minimalist kind. The score is achieved in large part by the onstage actor with the scrapes and scuttles of unorthodox instruments and everyday objects alike. The actor’s involvement in the soundscape allows for even more synchronization between the noise and the action and reaction of the character the actor portrays. Like any score, it certainly helps to tell the audience how they should feel: in this case, afraid, unsettled, and unsure. The strange and mysterious score left me unprepared for what came next, as I had never heard anything quite like it. All I could do was absorb the music and the show in unease, which was only enhanced by the dim lighting and disturbing movements occurring onstage.
According to Samuel Selden, there are three levels of human feeling, which are emotion, general feelings of pleasure or displeasure, and sensation. Sensation is the most immediate and instinctual of the three, whereas emotion is the deepest.1 All three levels are quite discernible and key to the success of Whispers. I think it is the show’s score that elicits the most sensations from the audience. It includes sounds that people are instinctually adverse to, like those similar to nails on a chalkboard or a metal chair scraping across a hard floor. These noises cause the hair on the back of one’s neck to stand up, or even involuntary wincing. These responses are sensations that haven’t fully manifested into emotions, but do help to create the more general feeling of displeasure, the second level of human feeling. As for Selden’s third level, I think the sensations elicited by the uncomfortable tone of the show build upon each other to create emotions. The sensations are more subconscious reactions whereas emotions are conscious states such as discomfort or fear. If the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up long enough to create a stable feeling of displeasure, then the audience member will surely feel fear, eventually. The interaction of the onstage character and the sounds also created this ominous atmosphere, since it was unclear whether she was affected by the sounds going on around her, or whether it was her who was affecting the sounds. Either way, there seemed to be a lot of manipulation and power at play, which seemed menacing and evoked an emotional response from me.
For all the unconventional aspects of this show, there are several conventional factors that no doubt contribute to the audience’s emotional investment, as well. It is set in a darkened theatre where there is focused attention on one subject. The actor remains on a traditional stage opposite rising seats facing in one direction. If these elements had not been in place, the audience may still have felt an instinctual displeasure with the performance, but would not have found themselves invested in it. I know that when I attend a performance of more immersive theatre, where I am to walk through a lit exhibit, or look at multiple locations, my attention is not nearly as captured as when I am seated in a theatre with lighting that emphasizes the actors alone. It is much easier to lose interest or focus when there is overstimulation or more freedom to look at whatever I choose. The more conventional approach eliminates the possibility for distraction as it holds the watcher’s attention in one spot, which helps to create emotional attachment to the characters and the show. In Whispers, the darkened theatre is absolutely necessary in creating the forboding yet captivating atmosphere to support the mysterious movements of the actor onstage. These simple elements of tradition integrated into such a unique work allow for a unique experience indeed; one in which the audience can not quite make sense of what they are witnessing, but become invested enough in the show to try.
This notion on the state of the audience also relates to Erin Hurley’s theory regarding the definition of theatre: “The feeling body is theatre’s focus: theatre requires a perceiving person in order to be.”2 I interpret this theory to mean that theatre requires more than just bodies that make up an audience; it requires bodies that are invested in the way the performance makes them feel. Their perceptions of the performance are key to the show itself. Without the development of an emotional stake in the production by the audience, the production is not very successful at all. Though Samuel Selden’s opinion on the subject is rather bold, it is similar to this claim: “The intellectual mind of the spectator may respond pleasurably to a stage display of good reason, but unless this man in the auditorium also laughs or cries, the show is a failure.”3 I am not sure I agree with the extremity of this theory, (a show can still be successful and meaningful to an audience member without a physical display of emotion,) but I do feel that intellectual stimulation alone is not enough for a piece of theatre to achieve success.
The mimetic aspect of the show was central to the lack of clear narrative, to which most audience members so desperately cling. Without a guide to help them navigate the show, the members of the audience depend on their own interpretation of visual and aural stimulation. In Whispers, the actor’s movements are careful to capture the attention of the spectators for the full duration of the show, but do not go so far as to provide meaning or reason to the performance. Indeed, the actor avoids movements that appear human at all, seeming to step outside of her body at several moments throughout the piece. She also creates characters with objects and even her own limbs, which add immediate intrigue, but no deeper narrative or plot onto which spectators can grasp. There are also moments when the actor begins with small, flexing movements of her fingers or shoulders and gradually increases these movements to more violent and desperate grasping of the hands or spastic shaking. The shift from gentle to manic once again leaves the audience uneasy and provides an organic quality to the production, linking the visible tempo increase to the audio as it speeds ahead. These shifts keep the audience from being able to relax, and thus immerse them in this new and frightening world.
In his review of Whispers, Neil Norman isn’t quite negative in his concluding thoughts on the show, but he does not seem overly impressed by it either. He writes: “An alarming work whose meaning never quite emerges from the shadows of the chiaroscuro lighting, it starts to cohere a little too late to be truly satisfying.”4 Perhaps he is right, as I did not feel satisfied when I left the theatre after seeing this performance. However, is theatre meant to leave every, if any, spectator satisfied? It is certainly significant if a work leaves audience members laughing, or even with a clear idea of how to think about the work, but it is my view that theatre is not meant to be enjoyed. Performance is meant to challenge the mind, introduce new ideas and perspectives, and can be a space for strange and unsatisfactory outcomes. Indeed I don’t think the goal of Whispers was to satisfy its spectators, but to do just the opposite, to make them wonder. Therefore, I feel that Norman missed the point in his review of Whispers.
In addition, Laura Marks states that, “If every object and event is irreducible in its materiality, then part of learning to touch it is to come to love its particularity, its strangeness, its precious and inimitable place in the world. I don’t believe in the alterity or ultimate unknowability of other things, people, and times. … If others are unfathomable, it is because it takes an infinite number of folds to really reach them.”5 Marks and Norman’s views make an interesting pair. While Norman believes that the “meaning” didn’t quite take form until the end, making it too difficult for the audience to connect with the work, Marks relies on the notion that everything and everyone is so irrevocably linked that no connection is impossible. This means that every spectator of Whispers has just as much of a chance of interpreting the show as any other. Perhaps these interpretations will be different, but not wrong. This theory empowers every viewer with the ability to gain knowledge or with the assurance that they already have it. Marks believes that one should appreciate the uniqueness of a object or a work, especially if no one meaning can be attached to it; this is the way to truly engage with a performance. I admire this approach to theatre, as I feel the greatest works are the ones that leave me pondering over particular choices and my interpretations of them for weeks to come, as Whispers certainly achieved.
Hurley, Erin, theatre & feeling, (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010)
Marks, Laura, ‘Introduction’, Touch: sensuous theory and multisensory media, (Minneapolis: Minnesota University, 2002), ix-xxii
Norman, Neil, ‘Whispers review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘intriguing, if mystifying’’, The Stage, (2017)
Selden, Samuel, ‘Creating a Feeling in the Theatre’, Educational Theatre Journal, 10.2 (1958), 97–100
- Samuel Selden, ‘Creating a Feeling in the Theatre’, Educational Theatre Journal, 10.2 (1958), 97–100 (p.97).
- Erin Hurley, theatre & feeling, (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), (p.36).
- Selden, 97–100 (p.97).
- Neil Norman, ‘Whispers review at Sadler’s Wells, London – ‘intriguing, if mystifying’’, The Stage, (2017).
- Laura Marks, ‘Introduction’, Touch: sensuous theory and multisensory media, (Minneapolis: Minnesota University, 2002), ix-xxii (p.xii).