Academic journal article About Performance

The Monster under the Bed: Acting and Trauma in the Rabble's Story of O and Frankenstein

Academic journal article About Performance

The Monster under the Bed: Acting and Trauma in the Rabble's Story of O and Frankenstein

Article excerpt

I am watching a recording of myself doing unspeakable things to another actress. I watch my arm's swing as I whip her with a riding crop. I watch my physical impassivity as I make her urinate in a cup before me. I watch my facial boredom as I force her to fellate me, and my temple's bulging veins as I bugger her on the floor. And all this between two well-behaved women who, out of rehearsals, spend most of their time discussing children's schooling and the impossibility of Melbourne property prices.

The production I am watching is Melbourne-based theatre company The Rabble's Story of O.1 I am playing Sir Stephen; Mary-Helen Sassman is O. And in watching it, I am struck by a sudden, uncanny combination of dislocation and shame: shame at its extremity; shame at its obscenity; shame at the fact that I cannot associate the person who is committing these terrible abuses with the woman who is now sitting at her computer writing this. It is a dislocation so profound that I feel nauseous at its confounding complexity.

My responses in watching this recording for the first time, eighteen months after the production, exemplify one of the most pervasive, yet strangely under-analysed, confusions that actors face: that of dissociative identification. In watching Sir Stephen on DVD, I am not he; he is as far from me as is imaginable. Yet the reality is that for months in the rehearsal room, and for weeks in performance, I mined the darkest places in my imagination, accessing every sado-masochistic thought and experience I had ever encountered, to create him, and, in a strange way for some moments in time, to become him. I allowed myself-I forced myself-to find sexual arousal in the subjection and pain of others. I improvised grotesque scenarios of quotidian tortures and banal humiliations. I found pleasure in the power I had to force my will on others. Yet at the same time, I longed for the use of the safe-word in the rehearsal room, I constantly worried about the mental and physical safety of Sassman, and I felt truly embarrassed that my mild and unadventurous imagination could dream up such unlikely abuses.

Switch to another recording and another show, The Rabble's Frankenstein.2 Now it is my naked and bruised body that is the object of the abuse. I am watching the purple welts on my legs and observing how the red blush of a bruise is developing over the course of the show. I am scrutinising, in a state of desensitised curiosity, the physical impact on my skin as Sassman hurls water balloons at my face, my thighs, the multiple breasts on my torso, as she grabs my hair and pushes me to the floor, as she brusquely pushes my legs apart and impregnates my bare genitals with a prosthetic womb. I simultaneously do and do not recognise us as I watch all this, our identities anamorphosed, twisted, and contorted so that it is not my friend Sassman and I whom I am watching.3 Nor, however, is it our characters. What is actually happening is less about the two dimensional, pixilated electronic images I observe and more about my brain's inability to correlate what I see with my own subjectivity. It is an inability to process the visions of the past made immediate in the present through the thoughtless repetition available to us by digital recording. And at this same moment when I am trying to analyse my failure to process our identities, I am smelling again the scent of Sassman's shampoo as the monster inhales the perfume of her mother's hair; I am involuntarily retching in the back at my throat at the remembered but now again present stench of rotting set and rancid breast milk; I suddenly sense the damp and cold of my naked, sodden skin; and, prosaically and very practically, I feel, as I type these words, the hot, quiet ache in my right elbow, that never quite recovered from the almighty knock I gave it one day in rehearsal.

This paper aims to explore some of the elements of this strangely oscillating identification, using the mutating field of trauma studies as its frame. …

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