Taking Care Of Baby / Betrayal
Various venues
June, 2007

We live in a culture which is pervasively mediated, in the sense of being shaped by the media.  It’s a point which is incisively made by Dennis Kelly in Taking Care Of Baby, and one which most reviewers haven’t seemed ready to face.  I don’t mean that in the sense of holding our hands up and admitting that we as agents of the media shape the world to our own tastes; I mean admitting that we, like all consumers, tend not to question information that is presented to us in a broadly non-fictional context.  That’s what Kelly plays with in his script.  Several reviews note the opening caption, “The following has been taken word for word from interviews and correspondence”; nobody mentions that the caption is repeated several times through the evening, but in increasingly garbled form.  And yet, because it still seems to bear some relation to the original, we likewise hang on to a vestige of faith in that claim even as we see it being ever more graphically belied.

Aleks Sierz comes close to the kernel of the play when he says it “calls into question how we can believe anything at all in this postmodern age”, but I think he’s looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  It seems to me that Claire Allfree is bang-on when she acknowledges that the real indictment is of all of us: that we devour news, “reality” stories and all kinds of celebrity with diminishing discrimination.  “The average broadsheet contains more information than someone in the Middle Ages would have assimilated in their entire lifetime,” says the psychologist character in Kelly’s play.  This may be another invented factoid, but it rings true.  Politico, chat-show guest, scientist, murderer, innocent... all are equal grist to our info-mill.  And we question it all equally little; we set up filters of prejudice that pass for “questioning”, but that’s generally all we do.


This was all brought home to me some years ago, when my 1997 Edinburgh Fringe performance was the subject of a “fly-on-the-wall” TV documentary.  It’s interesting to note in passing that this is a form which has largely gone out of fashion in favour of competitions of various kinds where (despite the name of the genre, “reality TV”) the artifice of the situation and the blatancy with which it is manipulated are ever more apparent.  But still we don’t question it.
The relevant thing here is not that I was thoroughly stitched up by mendacious editing and a voice-over that basically fabricated a story which happened to star someone with my name and face.  What shocked me all over again was that when the television reviews came out, virtually no reviewer questioned the mendacious portrait offered to them.  Even people whose job it is to see through the manipulations of the medium had utterly suspended their disbelief and gulped the fiction down without question.  It was presented with all the trappings of factual coverage, so it was accepted as such.  Just as we do, at least at first, with Kelly’s play, as long as we believe it to be verbatim.  There’s no point being offended or outraged when we realise the shortcomings… because it is we who have supplied those shortcomings.  Like all the best tricks, it relies on our desire to believe; we do the trickster’s work for him.  We have to take our share of responsibility.


Mark Shenton’s brief print review of Betrayal touches on an issue he deals with more thoroughly in his online blog: the poor sightlines afforded by Roger Michell’s staging.  I had the same experience with this production, though sitting on the opposite side of the theatre from Mark: I can now give an informed opinion on the articulacy of Sam West’s shoulders.
A few years ago on the Edinburgh Fringe I went to a show which was staged largely on the horizontal, with all five performers in a single rank across the stage; however, the audience were seated on three sides, and from my seat I got an excellent view of whichever one of them happened to be nearest me and damn all else.  I felt compelled to point this out to the director after the performance.  Her response?  “Yes, I know, but I decided to stage it this way.”  Somehow it didn’t seem to be worth asking her why she had decided deliberately to prevent more than half the audience from seeing the work it was her job to present to us; I just walked off, sadly incredulous that people can be so dim and/or arrogant.  But one expects Donmar-calibre directors to know better.  Yet Betrayal is not the first time that, in that theatre where no-one is more than three rows from the stage, I have nevertheless been repeatedly prevented from seeing the action by the actors’ inaction… if you see what I mean…

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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