What differentiates theatre from a lecture, a university debate or an essay? These days it’s not always clear. We live in the age of ‘issue plays’ – work that seeks to ‘tackle’ contentious topics, debates and diatribes seemingly ripped straight from the pages of the Guardian. Some of this work can be fantastic, telling stories can help us find clarity in the almighty muddle that it is to be human. There’s no question that, when done well, theatre can cut through the noise, show us something we’d never seen before and shed light on unheard voices, people, stories. Often, though, it seems that theatre’s focus on the ‘issue’ can come at the expense of action, intrigue, enjoyment and – ironically – the issue itself.
Made Visible by Deborah Pearson, currently playing at the Yard Theatre, is just this latter type of ‘issue play’. Focusing on Pearson’s own experience of sharing a park bench with an Indian woman, Pearson explores and questions her own prejudices, presumably with the wider intention of asking us to examine our own. Often this is done quite literally: for example, the actress playing Deborah (Haley McGee) tells us that she is, in fact, an actress playing Deborah, while the three performers frequently step out of character to question the knotty contradictions in the text – and it’s telling.
It’s an interesting idea, and the play is certainly engaging to start. It becomes clear as the layers are peeled back that Made Visible isn’t so much about race, as about perspective, preconceptions and privilege – fertile and of course important subject matter. But all this is dealt heavy-handedly, these metatextual devices feeling forced and contrived while the subject discussed is pointedly and openly. And the play ends up tipping from worthiness into a strange mixture of self indulgence and smugness, combined with a large helping of white guilt and self-pity. The form disintegrates and the issues become increasingly muddled, thanks to various digressions. These include a section where the cast and director are each given a minute on the timer to talk about how they feel about the play, but end up saying very little at all.
As such, Made Visible ends up feeling incredibly didactic, and at just under an hour and a half it seems very long. While the writer congratulates herself for pointing out the irony in her own being white and writing a play about race, one wonders whether the truly progressive, radical thing would be to actually programme work by people from minority backgrounds, rather than about how white people feel about them.
Made Visible is playing at the Yard Theatre until 9 April. For more information and tickets, see the Yard Theatre website. Photo: Mark Douet