Bush Theatre’s Baby Reindeer certainly courted controversy with its depiction of a man dealing with a stalker, pushed to the limit. After friends, Lou and Toby saw the production they were left with very different opinions. Here, they talk in length about them.
Toby [T]: So we went to see Baby Reindeer, and had different opinions…
Louise [L]: We did. You go first.
T: I thought it was a brilliant deconstruction of a unique relationship, as well as toxic masculinity and the way that men react to incidents like stalking very differently, due to different social pressures. I think you didn’t like it as much?
L: I see what you’re saying and identified those themes within the show but that’s not what I identified most with the show. What I found difficult was the absence of a character who was as much a part of the story as the person telling it.
T: It was never going to be an objective account, though. From Gadd’s perspective it’s what he felt and what was put on him. He could never bring her in for her view.
L: I’m not saying at any point he should have brought her in or given her an interview but he does represent her. It’s looking at a very intimate relationship between two people from one person’s perspective. What I’m interested in here is her experience of it. Essentially this piece of theatre is stuck in a place where we’re only looking at the male voice. He identifies that she is not well, so that makes the ethics around the play challenging. It feels like it’s demonising mental illness at some points.
T: I don’t think it does. It’s a very good analysis of a particular, peculiar relationship from the perspective of someone who is fundamentally a victim. But it also deconstructs how he could have handled things better but failed to because of his own hang ups with himself, his past and the society he’d grown up in. He talks about how the problem is that the authorities can’t arrest the stalker or give her any help because she lives on this weird cusp of not being extreme enough. The play is about the failure of us to treat mental health stuff like this properly. She’s not going to hurt him but until she acts like she might, she can’t get the help she needs and she can’t be punished for being a stalker. It becomes this weird stasis that encourages repetitive behaviour.
L: I disagree there. She does not seek help at any point. It’s not about that.
T: No, but sometimes people need help to be pushed on them a bit. The system can’t do that because she’s not seemingly well enough to know that she needs help.
L: That’s true. Fundamentally this is a story of two sides. I completely agree with you that he’s a victim. Though I couldn’t help but feel that the way she as a presence was handled was irresponsible and unkind. There were moments I felt language was misogynistic. For example, there are moments where he calls her a bitch. I understand where this language comes from when someone has had this experience, but I don’t think it was helpful. My first real red flag moment was how it handled the emails. At one point, when Gadd tells her they can’t have a relationship because she’s too old to have children, she sends him emails about her menstruating. They were used to make a joke. I don’t think that’s helpful at all. In other ways as well, he identifies she is obsessed with him. He has a restraining order against her. But he says at the end of the show she will find out about the show and is still contacting his family, so this is very much not over for her. Do you not think it’s irresponsible? Because if you’re in the mindset where you’re in love with someone and believe that they’re in love with you, and they write about the experience you had together, wouldn’t a part of you think, “That person does have feelings for me?” Also, there is no way for her to defend herself against this. She can’t present a counter argument in any way and that feels like we’re going back decades.
T: I’d say the show does deal with that. Yeah, it is one sided, because he can only give his opinion and I feel he has the choice as a victim to present it how he likes. It works because he uses things like the menstruation emails and the audience laughs, but he immediately interrogates this stuff head on. After the emails he then tells us he was showing these to his male friends, who send the stalker an email begging this clearly vulnerable person for anal sex. He’s always interrogating how we live in a society that is structured to mock and belittle women. What makes the whole play work and come together in my opinion is the subplot with Terri. I agree that without that storyline the show could feel a lot weaker. But with that subplot, he’s clearly reflecting on internalised and societal misogyny and how much that has messed him up.
L: As a woman sitting there, I didn’t think it was good enough. You say he was reflective, but there wasn’t enough remorse from him at the end. I think he baited her and gets away with it. There’s the moment where he says to the police that if he was a young woman in this situation, they would be helping him. Arguably a young woman wouldn’t be making sexually provocative jokes with a forty-year-old man because we know how dangerous that is. And the entrapment element, where he tries to get her to be more extreme so the police can do something. How can he sit there and say, “I’m a victim” based on his behaviour?
T: But wasn’t he coming from a desperate place? Of course, they were bad decisions, he admits that throughout. He’s constantly saying, “I did a thing, it was dumb, I shouldn’t have done that.” He’s repeatedly owning his own failures as a man, as a boyfriend, as someone operating in the world.
L: It’s so interesting, the male and female perspectives on this show. I’ve spoken to other friends who would say they feel like a minority in theatre and they have all agreed with what I’ve said. The things that inherently they’ve taken away are misogynistic language. That’s the real thing I’ve struggled with. When he’s talking about owning his mistakes, he’s presenting himself as balanced, in the middle.
T: I don’t think so. He’s saying he isn’t a balanced person, that he’s fundamentally messed up and this is just his opinion as someone who went through it.
L: But he identifies himself as the victim.
T: Which I think he is.
L: But he doesn’t identify her as a victim too.
T: He definitely does.
L: At what point does he do that? When he used misogynistic language and entraps her?
T: As I said, every time he makes fun of her, he undermines it explicitly. It’s interesting… a female friend of mine saw it and she completely agreed with me. She really saw him challenging his own assumptions and jokes and behaviour.
L: I will say I love the play as a piece of theatre. It’s a really great bit of writing. What I struggle with is that the ground is so fertile for a play like this. What should happen too, is for someone who is vulnerable and does these things, their story should be heard. I don’t think we’re going to see that. But there is room for that in the industry and I don’t think we’re seeing it, here or elsewhere.
T: No, I totally agree, as a disabled person. The industry is very bad at representing genuine voices from marginalised people. In this particular case though, analysing it as its own individual thing: yes, it is subjective. Yes, it is told from a very male perspective. But that’s a deliberate choice. He’s saying, I can’t represent her, I can only say what happened to me. The ultimate point of the play is that the whole system we are operating in is designed to disenfranchise people, especially people who have mental health problems or historic traumas. I really enjoyed it though and would recommend it.
L: It’s interesting that you’ve looked at it from this macro perspective, the much bigger picture, and I looked at it in the micro side of these two people.
T: Maybe we disagree partially because of who we are. You’re coming to it as a woman existing in a society that makes women unsafe, threatened and belittled. And I’m coming from it as a guy who went to an all-boys school and, while an ally, is more indirectly than directly affected. I guess from that reasoning he really resonated with me as he challenged internalised misogyny, whereas for you the female character wasn’t well represented. Maybe that’s why we have such different opinions on it.
L: I think you’re right. Anything else to add?
T: I liked the tech. I thought the projections were cool.
L: Guys, I loved the design. You know what, I loved the production design overall.
T: Loved the spinning chair. Very into that. To summarise! In conclusion!
L: I’m a woman
T: And I am a man.
L: And we have different opinions.