Review: Yes No Black White, Camden People's Theatre

Yes No Black White is part of Camden People’s Theatre’s Handle With Care festival which interrogates that most bizarrely pejorative of terms, the ‘Snowflake’ – after all what better way is there to really stick it to the man, woman or genderqueer person than to accuse them of being a beautiful, complex, unique, shimmering ice crystal? I mean, that is the opposite of a burn in every way.

Written and performed by Pablo Pakula, Yes No Black White hones in on the questions of what causes us to take offence, how offence itself has become weaponised, and what we can do about all this. With Pakula not speaking throughout the performance, he uses audio and visual technology to juxtapose a number of provocative words and images in different ways. Initially, this comes across as a little superficial, although this is perhaps intentional to demonstrate the superficial simplicity of the binary terms in which we often communicate (“hate”/“love”, “speak”/“listen”) and draw attention to the web of subtleties that this brash certainty masks. For instance, that Pakula chooses not to speak throughout the performance only makes us listen more closely to what it has to say.

As the play progresses, organised into a ‘Snowflake Sonata’ by Anna Meredith’s wonderfully evocative soundtrack made up of frenetic pulsing electro music interspersed with segments of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, we begin to understand that it is our own individual responses that are really being put under the microscope – and indeed whether we are honest enough with ourselves to recognise this. How do we react to an image of a bird drowned in an oil slick captioned by the word “inevitable”? Or an image of a Black Lives Matter protest labelled “hate”? Or a laughing white, heteronormative family branded “racist”? As the images are repeated with different words and increasing urgency we begin to ask ourselves which images we find upsetting, nauseating, regrettable, acceptable, normalised. Presented with a series of obscene ‘jokes’, with the subjects omitted, we realise just how enmeshed in the discourse of offence we all are as our brains rush to fill in the gaps with the familiar stereotypes that most of us would condemn as disgusting and bigoted.

As the performance crescendos towards its climax, Pakula becomes more and more visibly distressed on stage, discarding the smooth suit and sunglasses combo from behind which he initially orchestrates proceedings to display the bruised humanity it contains. At the core, his struggle appears to be rooted in understanding how to speak in a world already drowning in endless words and, moreover, words so marinated in prejudice and vitriol that they seem fit only for conflict and alienation. This is powerfully conveyed by Pakula’s physical performance increasingly evoking a desperate attempt to express himself as he is swept along in relentless, poisonous tides in which causing offence is often not an issue to be discussed, but a medal of honour.

Pakula’s eventual visceral scream is so much more moving because it is the only vocalisation he makes throughout the performance, and we suddenly become aware just how great an impact choosing not to speak can have. This is not a production that tries to give us any easy answers, with the final movement of the sonata exploring the equally problematic language of reconciliation. But in this rare ballooning space, wrought with uncertainty and introspection, we may begin to ask more searching and sincere questions of ourselves than the more familiar vociferous ones which tend to come with built-in answers: yes, no, black, white.

Yes No Black White played Camden People’s Theatre until 6 November. For more information, see the Camden People’s Theatre website.