Liz Tomlin*


Resumé / Abstract

Cet article émet l’hypothèse que beaucoup des questionnements de l’Histoire dans le théâtre contemporain refusent de nous donner une représentation visuelle des événements historiques, mais présentent plutôt leur absence. Comme le montre l’exemple choisi (After Dubrovka de Neil Mackenzie, Mole Wetherell et Spencer Marsden, spectacle sur la prise en otages des spectateurs d’un théâtre de Moscou par des Tchétchènes en 2002), grâce à l’utilisation de la dimension sonore, l’absence se trouve peuplée par l’imagination du public, ce qui permet une mise en relation originale entre l’événement passé et le contexte présent.

This article proposes that explorations of recent history in contemporary performance increasingly look to reject staged images of represented history or any recourse to visual spectacle. Instead they seek toforeground the inevitable absence of the historical event and its players. Through auditory stimuli this absence then becomes populated by the imaginary, enabling a much more significant connection between past and present than conventional theatrical representation can offer. After Dubrovka, which I shall use as my example, was produced by Neil MacKenzie, Mole Wetherell and Spencer Marsden and was based on the hostage taking by Chechen rebels at the Moscow Theatre in 2002.


The concept of the simulacrum, as conceived by Jean Baudrillard, is often over simplified, and sometimes misinterpreted as a refusal to acknowledge, in the words of Christopher Norris, any ‘operative difference between truth and falsehood, veridical knowledge and its semblance’ (1992:12). However there is significant evidence throughout Baudrillard’s work that the simulacrum effaces distinctions between the event ‘as experienced’, (veridical knowledge), and the event ‘as perceived’ (semblance); it does not deny that such distinctions exist. In The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact he explains that:

News coverage is coupled with the illusion of present time of presence – this is the media illusion of the world ‘live’ and, at the same time, the horizon of disappearance of the real event. Hence the dilemma posed by all the images we receive: uncertainty regarding the truth of the event as soon as the news media are involved. As soon as they are both involved in and involved by the course of phenomena, it is the news media that are the event. It is the event of news coverage that substitutes itself for coverage of the event.(2005:132-3)

Here we can see that it is access to ‘the actual event’ which is blocked, not its conceptualisation. The ‘actual event’ is not covered and does not exist to our perception, all we can perceive is the ‘event of news coverage’, but this does not deny the existence of another ‘order’ of ‘event’ which has been occluded from our perception. When such ‘real events’ have passed into history, and are no longer available to us in the present time, it becomes particularly critical to identify strategies by which we might rather uphold the independent authority of the event itself, which is otherwise in danger of being consumed by the event of its coverage, or, as Baudrillard identifies, the images of itself (2002:27). Critics drawing on Baudrillard’s theories continue to highlight the danger that, as Hans Thies Lehmann argues:

The overabundant world of images could lead to the death of images, in the sense that all actual visual impressions are registered more or less only as pure information, the qualities of the truly ‘iconic’ aspect of the images being perceived less and less. (2006:89)

Consequently, this paper will argue, explorations of recent history in contemporary performance increasingly look to reject staged images of represented history or any recourse to visual spectacle, in favour of foregrounding the inevitable absence of the historical event and its players. Through auditory stimuli this absence then becomes populated by the imaginary, enabling a much more significant connection between past and present than conventional theatrical representation can offer.

After Dubrovka was produced in October 2007, and presented in the UK at Lancaster’s Grand Theatre(11-13), Manchester’s Dancehouse Theatre (23-24) Oct, and Exeter’s Phoenix Arts Centre (29-31). It was created by Neil Mackenzie (artistic director of Plane Performance), Mole Wetherell (artistic director of Reckless Sleepers) and Spencer Marsden (sound artist) and was defined by its creators as a ‘theatre installation’, introduced on the Reckless Sleepers’ website as ‘an event in a theatre, remembering an event in a theatre―an act of remembrance’. Individual spectators were invited to take part in groups of no more than 8, admitted at 40 minute intervals throughout the day, and this analysis is taken from two viewings of the installation in Manchester on October 23rd.

The stage set for the start of After Dubrovka at The Grand Theatre, Lancaster, UK, © Neil Mackenzie.
The stage set for the start of After Dubrovka at The Grand Theatre, Lancaster, UK
© Neil Mackenzie.

We were led through the wings and out onto the stage which was empty except for nine speakers hung over our heads, equally spaced out on the lighting grid. There were three or four people sitting at some distance from each other in the faded red velvet seats of the old fashioned auditorium, dimly lit, who were watching us. We were welcomed by a voice emanating from the speaker above us:

I’d like to introduce you to where you are.
You are standing in the playing area,
If you look to your left, that’s stage left, or prompt side, the side where the prompt corner normally is
To your right is stage right, or opposite prompt, and our lighting operator,
If there were a bastard prompt, that is a prompt corner stage right, everything would be different.
Between you and the auditorium is a proscenium arch
An imagined line on the stage floor in line with the arch is the plaster line
Please don’t cross the plaster line,
Please don’t touch the bounce,
Keep your fingers clear of the smoke pocket
It’s easy to get lost on stage, It’s easy to lose a sense of where you really are, Where in the world this is, and you are, right now. (Mackenzie 2007: unpaginated)

At some point during this text other speakers began to light up, three or four at a time, as voices speaking different texts emerged from them. Some texts, like the first, spoke to our immediate present position, asking, by implication, that we occupy the roles of actors, and, by imaginative extension, the ‘real’ actors who were on stage prior to the siege. Others placed us in the roles of the ‘real’ Chechen rebels who took their place as ‘actors’ on the theatrical-turned-political stage during the performance ofNord Ost: ‘Do it, for your god, do it, now. Do it. Do it. Do it.’ Most provocative, however, were the texts which offered the ambiguity of feeling simultaneously drawn to the present/real and past/imagined scenarios which were being evoked:

This is not your space
You should not be here
They should not be looking at people like you
They were not expecting to see people like you
You are not welcome here. This is a theatre
You are where the entertainment should be
You are where the performers should be performing
You are standing where there should be a show, a play, a musical,
This should not be happening
This is not what this place is for. (Mackenzie 2007: unpaginated)

To experience the overlapping juxtaposition of these texts, on stage, in front of an audience, moved us imperceptibly and simultaneously between our own experienced reality in the present – that of a ‘spectator’ who is inappropriately positioned on the stage, without script, direction or intent – and our imagined and subjective embodiment of another’s ‘experienced reality’ in the past – that of an actor in a fictional musical who is about to become a hostage in a ‘real event’, or that of a Chechen rebel standing where the actor should be. The texts concluded with a minute’s silence before we were invited down into the auditorium, to take the place of those who had watched us, and who had now left. Small speakers were installed on the back of the seat in front of each of us and these began to address us as the next group entered onto the stage from the side. In parallel with the first half of the installation, the voice addressing us positioned us sometimes as spectators in the here and now, watching others go through the process we were now familiar with, sometimes as generic spectators who were expecting to watch a piece of theatre but were being given something very different, sometimes as embodiments of the spectators at Dubrovka who watched as a Russian musical turned into a political siege, and sometimes blurring the boundaries which distinguished the roles from each other.

What was very clear from all aspects of this production was that its objective was not to mediate the historical event in order to provide us with an ‘alternative truth’ to the mass-media simulations available. Speaking on the panel which had been asked to present on the performance after one evening’s showings Karen Juers-Munby outlined the potential ‘alternative truths’ which had not been explored by the piece: the cover-up operation by the Russian government over the deaths, the conspiracy theories regarding Russian involvement in the hostage taking and the subsequent assassinations of the Russians who voiced such suspicions (Juers-Munby 2007). Although brief information on the siege was made available in folders compiled by the company and displayed in the bar, this information was skeletal, an aid to those who were unfamiliar with both the event and its simulations, rather than an engagement with the detail or political context of the historical event the production had set out to remember. Speaking on the same panel Linda Taylor posed the question: ‘how do we deal with political and historical content when there’s no contextualisation?’(Taylor 2007). A further question would be whether, in the absence of engagement in the ideological or historical context of the event, the performance is necessarily failing to uphold the independent authority of the historical event to which it alludes? Or might the mere allusion to a historical event in this instance serve only to offer depth to an installation which was, at its core, engaged primarily with meta-theatrical enquiry. Karen Juers-Munby confessed her reservations:

I have a nagging unease about After Dubrovka which I would like to try to articulate thus: my question is: can this kind of piece live up to, or testify to, or even make us aware of the horrendous events in the Dubrovka theatre in 2002? Or will it remain an exercise in theatre reflecting on itself? (Juers-Munby 2007)

I will now suggest that the answer to this entirely valid question depended, to some degree, on the behavioural choices made by the ‘performing’ participants, to whom we were audience, in the second part of the experience. My first engagement as spectator was supported by performing participants who remained engaged and focused on the texts they were hearing, and obeyed the instructions they were given. Drifting from one ‘listening moment’ to another, or standing motionless in the light of one speaker or the shadows in between, these performers, who resisted ‘performing’, enabled me to project onto them text which could refer to past imaginary as well as present reality; text which asked me questions such as: Which one did I trust? Which one was uncomfortable? Could I see what the tall one was up to? What about the one with the long coat and which one was the one in control? With imaginative engagement, and the prompts of the text, I could slip seamlessly between present and past, watching compliant non-performer morph into the ghost of a Russian actor, or Chechen rebel, so that text which covered both experiences; ‘it shouldn’t happen in a theatre … this is a place for pretence, where people are pretending to do things, be things, where people go home…’ was surprisingly moving, given the distance that lay between that past narrative, the mediated ‘real event’; and my own very safe, very mundane position in the present.

On my second visit, however, my experience as spectator was very different. This time the performing participants were a group of young drama students, who worked the space as if they were being assessed on an improvisation, sitting, standing, taking positions in order to push the boundaries of the instructions they’d been given, fully aware of their audience and playing to them, without seemingly being over-concerned about the texts which were ‘performing’ to them. Such self-awareness rejected complicity with the textual narrative I had been able to place on the earlier performers I had watched. It is easy to understand how spectators who experienced such displays of self-awareness might suggest that the project had failed to give the necessary weight to the independent authority of the Dubrovka event. Such experiences would inevitably support a reading of the installation as concerned predominantly with the dynamics of performer/spectator to the cost of the history it claimed to commemorate.

Spectators in the audience watch spectators on the stage at The Dancehouse, Manchester, UK, during the installation After Dubrovka © Neil Mackenzie.
Spectators in the audience watch spectators on the stage at The Dancehouse, Manchester, UK, during the installation After Dubrovka © Neil Mackenzie.

Notwithstanding the evident risk of such failure I would like to return to the stated intention of the piece in order to offer an alternative perspective on how the production sought primarily to ‘re-member’ the ghosts of history through the application of its metatheatrical vocabularies. The piece was defined by its creators, above all else, as an ‘act of remembrance’; a memorial. David Savran distinguishes Memory from History, drawing on the work of Pierre Nora:

Memory…connect[s] us with the past, it fills us out. It gives us an identity. It is alive, immediate, and concrete…History, on the other hand, is assumed always to be second-hand to come to us from outside. It is reconstructed through cultural narratives we read or watch or listen to. (Savran 2000: 586)

In its refusal to present an alternative ‘truth’, provide information, or offer illusory ‘expert opinion’,After Dubrovka was rejecting the historical, in favour of the remembered, as Savran’s observations are equally pertinent when applied to remembering pasts which we may never have had a personal connection with. In such instances―a minute’s silence on Remembrance Sunday, pilgrimages to Auschwitz or Ground Zero―we reflect in order to find a deeper connection to events which we have only received, in the main, through the cultural and mediatised narratives of history, through others’ (mis)representation; which have been made ‘unreal’ to us, which have been made commensurate with film footage and mythology. The memorial enables us to commit our personal imaginative and empathetic engagement to these events in order to elevate them from such commensurability; to make them ‘real’ for ourselves, in recognition of their undeniable reality to others. Refusing to offer an ‘alternative truth’ to the simulations of the mass media, After Dubrovka chose instead to offer its audience an alternative perception of the ‘real event’; rejecting both the narrative form of history, and the spectacular emphasis of our mediatised culture.

After Dubrovka, consequently, counteracted the model of the televised memorial tribute where the ‘real’ event gets obscured behind the televised footage; effaced by the representations of itself. As we sat in the auditorium the text explicitly informed us that we would not see any set tonight, nor any guns tonight; the representational apparatus was conspicuously absent, there was nothing here to displace the ‘real event’; nothing here to obscure it behind a narrative version of itself. James Thompson commented from the panel that such an approach corresponded with the advice of Yugoslavian director and professor of theatre Dragan Klaic who, in the wake of the country’s civil wars, had concluded that:

we shouldn’t be working with the absolute spectacle, the pain of the spectacle, the horror, because in many ways, that is terrain that certain people who use the spectacle of violence in certain events have dominated (Klaic 2002) [1]

Linda Taylor further suggested, apropos Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others, that, in such instances, ‘we don’t have the right to look at a piece of violence… simply for the spectacle… we don’t have the right to look unless we are committed to actually processing what we see’ (Taylor 2007). After Dubrovka committed us to processing what we could only imagine; refusing to offer us a mediation of the historical event which we could merely spectate and consume, but offering us, instead, a space to re-think the historical event for ourselves, to conceive of an imagined reality which might ‘stand in’ for the experience of others; but never assume to replace it, or be commensurate with it. This was the alternative mode of perception After Dubrovka offered; a mode which rejects the ‘deceptively comforting duality of here and there, inside and outside’, as Hans-Thies Lehmann describes, but instead ‘can move the mutual implication of actors and spectators in the theatrical production of images into the centre and thus make visible the broken thread between personal experience and perception’ (2006:185).

In the text which followed the minute’s silence we were told:

You are standing in my place
You are standing in for me
And for all the people who are not where you are now.
Thank you. On behalf of all of us, thank you for standing there.
Thank you for your performance.
For being those different people, for playing those different parts. (Mackenzie 2007: unpaginated)

This acknowledgement was more than a conceit. Our presence, our ‘standing in’; our imaginative complicity was vital for the memorial to function; for the event of remembrance to happen. When participants did not comply, as detailed earlier, but rather performed ‘in spite of’ the request to remember, embody, imagine, the spell was broken and all that was left was the meta-theatrical structure of the present time. When participants did comply with the conventions of the memorial, moving in silent response to the speaker lights going on and off or the texts coming in and fading away, they gave the impression of actors moving to cues, or with some kind of pattern or intention, providing a ghosting of all the actors who had ever moved on this stage and, by imaginative implication, on any stage throughout history, and by textual prompting, on the stage in Dubrovka, that night.

Such ghostings could be said to validate the meta-theatrical enquiry of After Dubrovka as the perfect vehicle for the memorial form. David Savran observes the long tradition of theatre’s haunting ‘by that which it believes it has displaced,’ and argues that ‘ghosts are so important on contemporary stages because they function as a point of intersection between memory and history’ (2000:585-6). In The Haunted Stage, Marvin Carlson elucidates precisely how the theatre ‘remembers’ through its tendency to ‘recycle past perceptions and experience in imaginary configurations that, although different, are powerfully haunted by a sense of repetition’ (2001:3). In this way After Dubrovka invited us to perceive what we had not seen through imaginary configurations provoked by ghosted disembodied texts. Beliz Gucbilmez describes how the ‘dematerialised voice…create[s] an auditory visuality on stage’, and ‘indicate[s] the violation of the stage by the offstage’ (2007:155). He goes on to identify the ‘offstage’ as the locus of the ‘uncanny’:

The ‘then’ is the imaginary time of the offstage. If the ‘then’ as represented by the offstage has been a ‘now’ sometime, which is to say, when that past was present, it was onstage. Thus, there is a close affinity between memory, the unconscious, and the offstage. (2007:155-6)

This concept of ‘offstage’ can be usefully applied to After Dubrovka which, in common with ancient Greek tragedy, refrained from putting ‘onstage’ the representations of the real event as if in the present; but located, instead, the ghostings of the real event in the past, or remembered, or imagined time of the ‘offstage’, ‘the forbidden area for real visitors and onlookers where we have reached the boundary of seeing’ (2007:154). If stagelessness, as Gucbilmez suggests, ‘constitutes an obstacle for the gaze’ (2007: 154), then the participants of After Dubrovka were asked instead to turn that gaze inwards, to imagine the historical event which happened to others for themselves; standing in for, at different times, the actor, or spectator, who they replaced in the meta-theatrical framework of the piece, generic actors, actors from Nord Ost, generic terrorists, Chechen terrorists, generic spectators and spectators of Nord Ost.

In this way the meta-theatrical framework of the piece enabled us to segway from ‘standing in for’ the usual actors and audience who were not there, to the greater political significance of ‘standing in’ for others on the world stage. Just as we, in our theatre seats on that night in Manchester, were, in some small, arguably banal, way, standing in for the audience of that night in Moscow; so they too, on a political, and far from banal, level, were ‘standing in’ for others. They were not targeted as individuals in their own right, but as individuals who were standing in for the perceived oppressor, Russia. Or, under Vladimir Putin’s strategic re-branding of the Russian oppression of Chechen separatists as part of the ‘war on terror’, they could even be said to be standing in for Western Imperialism on a global scale. In either case they were standing in for bigger narratives than themselves, just as we were. Were we then also standing in for, not only as the voice told us, ‘all the people who are not where you are now’, but also, perhaps, for all the people who were not where the Moscow audience were then. For all the theatre audiences who could have just as easily ‘stood in for’ Russia, or the West, or Imperialism, but who, on this occasion, were spared the reality of these particular consequences? Is it not also part of a memorial, particularly one where, in some small way, it could have been you, to pay homage to those who unwittingly ‘stood in’ your place? Conversely, when, on stage, I was placed in the role which lay somewhere between an actor and a terrorist was I then being asked to ‘stand in for’ all of those people who did not stand on the stage in Dubrovka that night; for all of those people who do not take political action, do not put themselves on the line and ‘act’ for a cause they believe in; but merely ‘act’ within the perameters of a theatrical fiction?

In conclusion I have suggested that After Dubrovka re-negotiated an alternative engagement with the historical event, enabling me to embody a multiplicity of roles and to populate a stage, auditorium, and historical event from my own imagination to raise the ghosts which inhabited the ‘offstage’ of the real event which lay inevitably out of sight. In the absence of representation, narrative, spectacle and historical context, the radical engagement with the historical event lies, perhaps, in the very space which is left; space which neither consumes nor threatens the distinction of the ‘experienced real’, but eradicates all possible mediations of it. Our commitment to the distinction of the real event, its singularity, its independent authority, may best be shown by our complicity in re-membering the absent real for ourselves, through an evocation of its ghosts. For, as Derrida advised:

the intellectual of tomorrow…should learn… from the ghost. He should learn to live by learning not how to make conversation with the ghost but how… to let them speak or to give them back speech, even if it is in oneself, in the other, in the other in oneself. (1994:176)


[1] This was paraphrased by Thompson from Klaic’s chapter ‘The crisis of theatre? The theatre of crisis!’ in Theatres in Crisis? Performance manifestos for a new century, ed. Maria M. Delgardo and Caridad Svitch, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002. pp. 144-159.
Works Cited

BAUDRILLARD, J. .2002. The Spirit of Terrorism (trans. Chris Turner), London and New York:Verso.

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CARLSON, M. .2001. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine, Michegan:University of Michegan Press.

DERRIDA, J. .1994). Spectres of Marx: the State of the Debt, the work of Mourning, and the NewInternational (trans. Peggy Kamuf), London: Routledge.

GUCBILMEZ, B. .2007. ‘An Uncanny Theatricality: the Representation of the Offstage’, New Theatre Quarterly, 23:2, pp.152-160.

JUERS-MUNBY, K. .2007. Unpublished transcript of Panel Discussion (transcribed by Lyn Cunningham), 24 October 2007.

KLAIC, D. .2002. ‘The crisis of theatre? The theatre of crisis!’ in Theatres in Crisis? Performance manifestos for a new century, ed. Maria M. Delgardo and Caridad Svitch, Manchester: Manchester University Press. pp. 144-159.

LEHMANN, H. .2006. Postdramatic Theatre (trans. Karen Juers-Munby), London and New York: Routledge.

MACKENZIE, N. .2007. After Dubrovka, Unpublished performance text.

NORRIS, C. .1992. Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals and the Gulf War, London: Lawrence and Wishart.

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SAVRAN, D. .2000. ‘The Haunted Houses of Modernity’, Modern Drama, 43, pp. 583-594.

SONTAG, S. .2003. Regarding the Pain of Others, London: Penguin Books.

TAYLOR, L. .2007. Unpublished transcript of Panel Discussion (transcribed by Lyn
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*Liz Tomlin is a lecturer at the University of Birmingham, where she publishes on contemporary performance, and co-artistic director of Point Blank Theatre. Recent articles include, ‘‘And their stories fell apart even as I was telling them: Poststructuralist Performance and the no-longer-dramatic playtext’ in Performance Research, vol 14 (1) (2009) and ‘Beyond Cynicism: Contemporary Performance and the Sceptical Imperative’ in Contemporary Theatre Review, vol 18 (3) (2008) Recent productions include An Evening with Psychosis, Roses & Morphine, Operation Wonderland and Nothing to Declare. A selection of the company’s texts and critical essays are published in Point Blank (Intellect, 2007).

Copyright © 2009 Liz Tomlin
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Beyond Representation: Re-membering the ‘Ghosts’ of Recent History in Contemporary Performance