Shrinking Violet's "The Clap"
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
“It’s Thursday, it’s 8pm. WELCOME TO… THE CLAP” After having the total pleasure of acting as an embedded critic for Shrinking Violet at the National Student Drama Festival in 2019 on their work-in-progress show Barry, the team have kindly invited me back to write about their work once more. This time it’s a new WIP show, The Clap, programmed as part of The Tramshed’s season of online work.
Presented as an online gameshow, The Clap is a politically-charged critique and response to the “Clap for Carers” initiative that saw us standing on our doorsteps on Thursday evenings through lockdown, showing our appreciation for the NHS and keyworkers through a collective, communal applause. This being despite the fact that NHS staff were being charged for the luxury of a parking space and it was only a few years ago that MPs let out a similar celebratory cheering when nurses were refused a pay rise back in 2017. It’s a seriously silly, absurdly poignant critique on political performative gesture; the gameshow gimmick as disguise and distraction from what’s really going on. What I love about this show is how it’s been totally designed for the digital format. We, the audience, become a fill-in for the actual game-show live audience, with some of us “randomly selected” to take part in the show. This turns out to be plants, colourful caricatures, introduced by our extravagant gameshow hosts Karen and Jonty. Each has a go at taking part in the game which celebrates the ‘beating heart of this great nation’. The colour scheme has a sort of offensively clashing, 90s discotheque feel to it, and the overall look is like a retro DIY arcade game. There’s something strangely old-fashioned and heteronormative about the format, which they queer through pastiche and cartoon-esque costume and make-up. One of the contestants, Jackie, was shielding for the first two weeks of the clap and missed it, so quickly becomes disqualified. We’re soon after given an X-Factor style sob story about Rob, who has an unfortunate medical condition – clapomalady - which means he can’t clap at all. He’s kicked out of the street WhatsApp group, ostracized by his neighbours, and has to deal with things being thrown at him; often by the very people who are proudly clapping on their doorsteps and boasting about how their appreciation is proactively supporting this country’s healthcare workers. It might keep the country in good spirits, but we know that a clap is not what our NHS need. They need fair pay, work-related costs covered, proper PPE, in the correct quantities. They needed people to abide by lockdown rules and stay at home. You have to wonder how many people caught at garden parties, VE day celebrations or public conga lines went straight to their porches at night to thank the NHS for all their hard work. The Clap is not only a critique on the gesture, but a comment on Britishness: on a nation which hypocritically claps for their carers after coughing in their faces. At one point, NHS worker Sandra is pulled up for an interview. She desperately requests a pay raise for carers and frontline workers but is abruptly cut off by the game show hosts. It turns out the performative spectacle of the game mirrors quite accurately the empty gesture of the clap itself; a trick into making the public think that they’re being supportive, but behind the smoke and mirrors hundreds of NHS staff are struggling to cope in the current work conditions and hundreds themselves have tragically died of the virus whilst looking after those in need. The contestants play a game to see who can get the food delivery van to Sandra’s house the quickest, accidentally killing her in the process, laughing at the “Tesco Value” food which falls out of the van. Meanwhile the £20,000 that’s been raised turns out to be merely a fundraising ploy for the game show itself. As Rob quite succinctly puts it, ‘People care so much about this stupid clap, this big show, that they’ve forgotten what it’s actually all about.’ There’s been a really interesting discourse that’s emerged around making theatre about COVID, and initially there was quite a bit of resistance to making work that dealt with the pandemic directly. ‘No one wants to see your one-man Edinburgh play about the pandemic’ seemed to be the general idea. But I just don’t see how anyone can make work about 2020 without somehow acknowledging the global crisis which will no doubt be a defining moment of the 21st century, impacting on all of our lives and futures. Even if it’s not intentional, I reckon the next decade is going to find itself with plenty of plays about the indirect effects of the pandemic: isolation, the human desire for touch, community spirit. I think it’s going to seep in to nearly all the work that’s made, because it’s going to be so much at the forefront of our collective subconsciousness. Like many WIPs, The Clap occasionally finds itself a little on-the-nose, and I think could do with refining some of its moments. The blood on the hands at the end for example, whilst a striking image, comes a little out of nowhere, stylistically speaking, and feels a tad inconsistent with the rest of the work. It’s an overly explicit visual metaphor which I don’t think is even really necessary, hammering the point home which is already pretty clear. I also wonder more generally about how this sort of work can survive or develop post the period that it’s been made for. There’s something rather wonderful about the ephemerality of this piece, and other work that’s being made directly in response to this current moment. With the situation changing so rapidly, it makes sense for the work to make a quick appearance and then disappear as we move on to the next phase of the crisis. But it’s also vital that we don’t forget about the mistakes and sacrifices made along the way. That we’re able to keep a record of the way the events of the last few months have unfolded, and as a medium which creatively responds to the socio-political urgencies of the present moment, art seems like a pretty neat way of keeping track of everything. I think one way I’d like to challenge this work further – bearing in mind it’s quite short in its current form at a tidy thirty minutes – is by thinking about how it can go beyond that slippery issue of preaching to the converted. As an audience of mostly liberal, left-wingers, we’re likely to be already overtly aware of the issues that this piece raises. It’s a criticism of political gesture, and of the handling of the crisis by the Tory government. There’s no doubt that the style, delivery and spectacle is entertaining and a lot of fun, but I wonder how it can develop beyond the thirty minutes to keep up the momentum for an audience who are already quite on side with its political standpoint. I’d also encourage the piece to tighten its format a little and think not just about the gameshow format (which it plays to quite successfully), but a little more about the wider story arc that is presented through the narrative. Maybe we need to realise that yes it’s easy to point the finger at radical right-wingers, VE day conga-liners and each and every Karen who joining the local “anti-mask” march, but perhaps beyond the obscure caricatures of right-wing media hosts, we need to spot the blood on our own hands, on our own doorsteps, and think a little more practically about the changes we ourselves can initiate.