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Semi-Deep Thoughts

Macbeth, Thane of Oz.

I found myself in the fortunate position of back-to-back theatre dates this week: Monday night saw Carrie Cracknell’s surreal and dystopian take on Macbeth at the Young Vic, whilst Tuesday took an excursion to the Emerald City, in the classic musical Wicked.

At first glance these two productions couldn’t be more disparate, connected only by my attendance. However, I humbly refuse to credit myself so highly and sought to find some other connections; perhaps attempting to justify my teasingly diverse interests?!

The most obvious parallel to draw is that both plays contain witches. In this circumstance, the three weird sisters Macbeth faces are presented as nothing more than vessels for magic out of their control. Their juttingly unnerving movements and nude, skintight costumes made these witches emotionless (and uncannily similar to the psychic in Minority Report with Tom Cruise, but this was probably an accidental bi-product.) Almost omnipresent, the sisters seem to enact Macbeth’s conscience; feeling when he feels, trembling when he does and menacingly distracting him as embodiments of his guilt.

On the opposite end of the spectrum to this predominantly silent, looming presence, is the undeniably ‘witchy’ presentation of Elphaba. You say “witch”, you think: green skin, a pointed black hat and a billowing cape, as she takes to the sky on her broomstick. What was out of the ordinary though, was the implication that these stereotypes came about by pure chance. Her green skin was a birth defect, the hat was a gift-cum-prank and the broomstick just happened to be at the receiving end of a levitation spell. Thus Elphaba becomes a trailblazer of magical fashion. The presentation of witches in Macbeth can’t be considered unexpected if the pointy hats are no longer seen as traditional, or the norm. Perhaps, in rejecting the ‘evil old hag’ characteristic, even something as globally popular as Wicked can be considered ‘avant-garde’.

Yet, having never been famously interested in the occult, I can’t claim the presence of witches to be a leading factor in my ticket buying habits. Under closer inspection, perhaps these two shows share more than just a London postcode.

A key story-telling tool used by this incarnation of Macbeth was music. In order to bring the long, unadorned, grey corridor set to life, interpretive dance, to thumping bass-driven music, was thrown in wherever possible. The company energetically threw themselves towards the audience, as the advancing trees of Birnam Wood, bringing an entire battle scene to life within the confines of the modestly sized stage. I’m sure it’ll come as no surprise that Wicked also used music to narrate itself! The majestic explosion of notes within ‘Defying Gravity’ alone have ensured the show’s residence as one of the top ten longest running West End musicals. I plan to pursue singing lessons as of next week.

On a far less uplifting note, another similarity I teased out from both plays is the presence, in fact the leadership, of an under-qualified, over-reaching and unjust tyrant. Macbeth paves his way to power with murder; the Wonderful Wizard of Oz merely pretends, performs and imprisons any objectors. Both “great” men are eventually brought down by ghosts of their past, lingering both in their memories and, usually, in a spotlight, upstage of them!

Countering the sick pleasure I find in resenting and rejecting these corrupt male figures of authority, are the strong female characters in their shadows. Lady Macbeth dominates the play; she controls those around her, with a single touch flicking a switch to ‘power off’ her dinner guests, allowing her conversations with her husband to remain ‘aside’. Even in her mania, she remains oxymoronically controlled; “out damned spot” is brushed off, repressed, spoken over, truly highlighting her lack of remorse. Elphaba is an equally powerful female figure, both magically and morally. However, unlike Lady M’s undeniable villainy, Elphaba is proven to be far from wicked. The whole thing is a great, big, sugar-coated misunderstanding (as musicals ought to be.)

Yet, it is in Macbeth where just deserts are served, whilst the only just characters in Wicked are swept under the trapdoor, beneath the rug. Why then does an evening of Shakespearean tragedy inevitably leave one noticeably less peppy than an evening imported from Broadway? Do we ignore the ending and just remember the general vibe: sinister vs. sequinned?

Whatever the outcome, I strongly believe that Shakespearean drama should be just as accessible and widely enjoyed as the next big musical (minus a ‘kinky boot’ or two!) Give or take a few ‘thees’ and ‘-eths’, the similarities, particularly in character types, are undeniably present. To quote from Shakespeare himself: ‘if music be the food of love […]’ add some jazz hands to your play and it’s guaranteed success!

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The Old Vic’s Hairy Ape

Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape artistically, and at times poetically, presents an overdue indictment on a society that reserves the right to needlessly exclude. The eponymous character is trapped on the lower deck of a repressive, ‘upstairs, downstairs’ society; whilst transition may appear fluid, it becomes increasingly clear that class is a cage from which no one can escape.

The physicality of the production was triumphant in demarcating the specific sub-sects of this society. From the opening freeze frame, the cage full of rowdy boilermen was brought to life by their synchronised slow-motion swaying, tossing them on a tide out of their control.

A highlight for the presentation of homogeneity was the almost grotesque portrayal of the New York elite, on their way home from church. Blank masked faces, adorned in sartorial finery, advanced in slow-motion, with exaggerated movements akin to dancing the charleston. The ‘Hairy Ape’ stood amongst them, with his characteristic, flea-ridden twitching, unable to make himself heard. The ghoulish group spoke only with repetitions of the phrase ‘I beg your pardon’, further denying them any personality or individuality. Yet we watch as the only individual character on stage craves this sense of mindless belonging.

The only real interaction the ‘Hairy Ape’ achieves, with each of the groups he approaches, is to be aggressively beaten. This choreographed sequence became a trope by which the scenes were defined. Somewhat repetitive, but certainly successful at driving home a message of disenfranchisement and rejection.

Unfortunately, these defining moments of physicality were punctuated with soul-searching soliloquies from the lead character. Not only did the energy noticeably sag at these points, but, beyond this, the script was detracted from by the speaker’s appalling accent. Aiming for an anger-ridden, Brando-esque New York Longshoreman, Bertie Carvel began sounding distinctly (albeit unintentionally) Eastern European. Whilst he did settle into the accent somewhat as the play unfolded, he still remained largely incoherent. His ape-like tendencies presented themselves through cacophonous crashing of any surrounding props, yet he was unable to project his voice over this noise due to the deeply glottal voice he had adopted to show his anger.  Luckily the script itself was repetitively written, in order to hammer its point home, thus allowing us to understand what he was saying at least the second or third time around!

I am however pleased to confess that the production as a whole visually compensated for its verbal shortcomings. The omnipresent, sinisterly serene face of Douglas Steel, in projections, newspapers and even the giant ‘man in the moon’ balloon, was an Orwellian touch that brought a sense of looming control and discomfort for all. The synchronised choreography of the men hard at work in the boiler room of the great ship stoked the fires of moral outrage with the palpable energy and exhaustion of the men. And the set itself, with its stark yellow cages, simplistically created a dystopian world, at once nightmarish and surreally familiar.

Overall, The Old Vic was true to form in achieving a visually and morally outstanding production; my only suggestion would be to find a new vocal coach!

‘Smooth-Faced Gentlemen’ take on the irrationally masculine world of Othello

After being blown away by Maxine Peake’s Hamlet earlier this year, I was eager to see what could become of a classic Shakespearean drama if ALL of the characters were portrayed by women. Whilst drama may be looked on at school as a cop-out, ‘girly’ subject, it doesn’t prevent women from being totally underrepresented and under-appreciated in the profession; thus ‘Smooth-Faced Gentlemen’, an all-female theatre company, attempts to redress the balance. After all, Renaissance theatre was originally intended for performance by a cast of all the same sex!

Unlike Cumberbatch’s Hamlet (see my previous post/rant), this version did not attempt to overdo the play, and, in my opinion, ought to be commended for its simplicity. All the women wore identical, unassumingly beige, 1950s army uniforms; thus enhancing the stand out difference of Othello’s skin colour. The set saw a bare stage adorned with multi-purpose doorframes, hanging (aptly) Venetian blinds. Mounted on wheels, these doorframes afforded fast-paced versatility to the piece, as the action of the play tirelessly changes location. Beyond this, when stationary, the set created some memorable stage pictures, namely: Iago and Othello both kneeling in prayer, each framed by their own door/ confession box. Not lasting all that long, this visual parallelism of the two “men” in matching costumes, postures and framed side-by-side, spoke volumes about Iago’s intentions to usurp the Moor through making him his puppet. Moments such as this added layers of analytical depth to the language, rather than using physicality to necessarily spell out the plot.

Another telling use of the blinds came in the scene where Othello eavesdrops on Cassio, fuelling his anger with misconstrued evidence. A row of half-open blinds cut the stage in half, and spun around to allow the audience to inhabit either side of this arras. As Cassio gushed on his love for Bianca, Othello could be half seen, upstage, pacing in fury. In this scene in particular, the blinds came into their own, marking the key underlying discrepancy between what is seen, heard and so easily misunderstood. The minimalist set design was justified by its symbolic depth.

Despite the effectiveness of the design techniques employed, the overriding simplicity allowed the overall focus to be directed towards the original language, within which the cast found, and exploited, an unexpected level of comedy.

Perhaps overexcited by this opening night of the show’s London transfer, the role of Brabantio seemed comically overplayed in the opening scene; I was momentarily concerned this play could sink into a pit of am-dram clichés (see Romeo and Juliet as played in Hot Fuzz!) However, my fears were allayed as the pressure was laid off of Brabantio and the whole cast adopted an appropriate level of comedy, finding satire and moments of pantomimic self-awareness in the script. Roderigo, played by Hannah Morley, was wonderfully foolish, not only providing comic relief but, importantly, exacerbating Iago’s sinister nature by comparison.

Calm and cunning as he is, perhaps Iago was destined to be played by a wily woman. Actress Ashlea Kaye played the role as perfectly villainous, never allowing masculine rage to let her lose her cool. On the other hand, I wondered from the outset how a role as overtly masculine as Othello could be handled by a female actor. Written as an uninspiring role for the most part, Anita-Joy Uwajeh did seem honestly in love (or indeed lust) with Desdemona; but the true mastery of the role is in the final scene, when her wide-eyed expression crossed the boundary from masculine anger, to the crazed hysteria of a woman scorned. That is not to say that this performance transformed Othello into ‘Othella’; rather that the production as a whole showed the virtue of exploring the unexpectedly feminine depths of character available to these traditional roles.

These feminine attributes were often so subtle that when the female characters actually came on stage, with the simple addition of a colourful skirt over their fatigues, I was forced to double take. Harking back to the original Renaissance playhouses, these women, at times, appeared as men performing in drag! Perhaps so focussed on achieving convincing male portrayals (which, as described, were hugely successful), these actresses didn’t exactly exude femininity when it came to playing Shakespeare’s women. That is with the notable exception of Helen Coles in the role of Desdemona. As expected in this quietly feminist theatre company, Desdemona was a strong female character; she was played with ample sass and, despite her relatively limited stage time, she spoke her lines as if holding her own on a stage full of men.

Finally, drawing together the impressive performances and subtly telling set design, the pace of the play can be considered a triumph in its own right. In order to accommodate the vast geographical and temporal expanses covered, the scenes were made to almost overlap; this, in turn, kept the snappy, comedic energy of the piece consistently high. Never a moment was wasted, unless intentionally so. By creating such tireless energy throughout, the cast left time allowances to slow some scenes to total stillness: such as whilst Othello and Iago share a “friendly” drink, Iago allows silent pauses for his poison to sink deeper into his foe. The opposition between pacy comedy and slow seething truly exacerbated the eventual tragedy.

In order to further enhance the drama and pace of the final act, the cast employed the only script-manipulation I will allow: through a soundscape of repeated lines, out of order and overlapping, it became apparent that Cassio’s attempted murder and Desdemona’s deathbed scene were occurring simultaneously. This slight deviation from folio added to the overall chaos and mania of the closing scenes of the play, somewhat vindicating the rash and undeserved actions therein.

Overall, whilst Othello is by no means my favourite Shakespeare play, this revival brought light, laughter and, most importantly, fast-paced excitement to the piece. It wasn’t just ‘good for a group of girls’, it truly stood out as an impressive, worthy take on classic theatre.

Review: Hamlet Cumberbatch, in all its long-awaited glory

Whilst I appreciated this was a well-executed, grand spectacle, responsible for reinvigorating the masses to watch Shakespeare, I can’t help but disagree with just about every directorial decision presented.

Let’s start at the beginning, or the latter half of act 1, scene 2, as this rewrite had it. By all means, update Shakespeare; I’ve seen it done in 80s dress, with unwelcome pop ballads between scenes and even whilst ‘Shit-Faced’. Every director brings their own slant to the Bard. But don’t rewrite it. Don’t mess with the script.

If Cumberbatch’s record-breaking sell out show is anything to go by, the script worked fine before, and not so much when it’s all out of order. It’s sad that half the world are now going to assume this newfangled version is gospel.

This notable lack of the classic opening scene, for me, diminished the initial shock factor of the Ghost’s appearance. The show tried to compensate by making his eventual arrival doubly shocking, to the point of melodramatic ridiculousness. Old Hamlet’s body was chewed up and ‘zombie-fied’ and his language lost impetus due to the bumbling-old-man voice with which it was spoken. This (unfit) characterisation of the Ghost was only further mocked when the actor doubled as the comedic Gravedigger later; other than the alliteration of their names, I don’t see why these two characters needed to be paralleled.

In opposition to the Zombie of Old Hamlet, much of the performance took a relatively naturalistic tact. The stage was overtly grand, totally befitting of the Court of Elsinore, but seemed comfortably like home for the characters and actors alike. Aligning with this set, Cumberbatch played an honest, sincere Hamlet. His emotions were wonderfully heartfelt, if not a little too melancholy for my liking. For me, Hamlet ought to be driven by bitterness, his wit manifested in sarcasm, demeaning those around him and controlling any situation he inhabits. Yet the premature placement of ‘to be or not to be’ rendered Hamlet suicidal from very early on. Whilst Cumberbatch mastered the role he was given, I personally found his scenes were a little too formulaic: spot-lit soliloquies caused him to break down into teary-eyed paralysis, somewhat slowing the pace of each scene to that of the background actors, who adopted super-slow motion whilst he spoke.

This repeated use of slow-motion, ‘don’t look at us, we’re not here’ acting, wasn’t the only innovative physicality in the piece. As Shakespeare’s lengthiest play, Hamlet can get bogged down in wordiness, so Lyndsey Turner direction utilised the physicality of both actors and props, in order to convey the message to the masses. The slow-motion, whilst Hamlet disappeared into his own thoughts, was well-executed and added a new dimension to the classic ‘single man on stage, pouring his heart out’ formula. However, most of the other physical decisions left me either scratching or shaking my head. It seemed that too much comedy was being found in prop-use, bordering on slapstick silliness when Hamlet’s ‘madness’ reduced him to a childlike state, popping his head out from an under-sized fort. His ‘antic disposition’ ought to be calculated, intelligent, and yes, whilst he should have fun with it, I don’t believe that total regression to match the giant mindless soldier toys was necessarily the way to go.

Beyond this, the closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude is described in the script itself as being reliant on ‘words’ as weapons; thus the comparison between her two husbands, between a glamorous hanging portrait and a tacky merchandise plate with Claudius’ face stamped in the centre, seemed to undermine the quality of their conversation, for the sake of a cheap laugh.

A less intentional laugh came at the climactic end of the first half, when everyone is in pursuit of the mad, and now murderous, Hamlet. The combination of thumping bass music, strobe lighting and a flurry of ashes and hectic was awe-inspiring; but the courtiers, in full suits, running on all fours, was just a little much. I get the whole ‘pursued by hounds’ factor, but the lack of commitment to their canine roles saw the men gallop across half the stage, before resuming full biped status for the other half.

The second act was suitably dark and ominous, with the once grand stage bestrewn with filth and ash. However, the very final scene was ruined by the over-done death of Laertes. Everything stopped, Hamlet himself this time adopted super-slow motion, to plunge the rapier into the spot-lit Laertes; meanwhile the company did some strange, floaty movements akin to any GCSE drama class. This could have been a fantastic climax, but WHY was it given to Laertes? I would have loved a moment like this (admittedly minus the floaty arm movements) to mark Claudius’ murder, the culmination of all of Hamlet’s strife. Instead, ‘poison to thy work’ was over in a matter of seconds, far upstage and somewhat masked by the balustrade of the grand staircase.

I don’t feel it necessary to prate on about Cumberbatch’s impressive acting (after all, let’s face it, his participation was the only reason the theatre was so beyond ‘Sold Out’ that I had been demoted to a cinema screening.) But it is worth noting the other impeccable acting performances. Claudius was every bit the perfect villain, from the sinister twist to undermine his prayer/confession, to the unloving way he manhandled the increasingly frail Gertrude. Rozencrantz and Guildernstern were the perfect dweebs, underplaying their parts masterfully to become nothing more than pawns in Claudius’ cruel game.

Ophelia, played by Sian Brooke, seemed a little too pathetic from the off, causing me to wonder where her performance had left to go when it came to her breakdown. But this performance truly surprised me, as the second act saw Ophelia ditch her oversized, frumpy jumper, for a Victoriana lace dress, making her Miss Haversham-esque in her madness. Her twitching was enough to make the audience flinch with discomfort; a spectacular use of physicality, amongst all the other silliness. Finally, having expressed herself musically from her very first appearance, Ophelia was granted a dramatic and worthy end, as she shut the piano lid and stumbled offstage, up a dark path, towards the light. If her total physical and mental demise wasn’t enough to suggest her impending death, this dramatic exit certainly did; the always overlooked Ophelia was finally given her last hurrah.

As a whole, I totally respected the performance, particularly from an acting point of view. But, unfortunately, I see it as the very height of hubris to think that one can acceptably re-write Shakespeare. Thus, for someone who has read and reread Hamlet incalculable times, this version undermined its own potential greatness in trying to be just that bit too innovative.

Everyman; a National Theatre Review

Originating in the fifteenth century as a relatively simplistic moral message, Duffy’s new adaptation maintains the medieval integrity of the piece, whilst incorporating into Everyman something that every-modern-man could relate to.

From the outset, it is clearly an ensemble piece. At the risk of sounding trite, the company really did incorporate ‘everyman’, embodying a variety of shape, size, colour and creed; yet this diversity became irrelevant when the hugely energetic physical theatre sequences kicked off this Saturday night party. As a collective, the movement was fast-paced and cocaine-induced, yet perfectly coordinated, bringing the scene to life without having to verbalise a thing. This keen use of physicality allowed the spoken words to be selectively chosen, as only a laureate can, creating beautifully skilled, yet never laboured, rhymes.

Alongside this balletic chaos in the opening scene and in accordance with the large-scale, projected images of the eponymous character’s life flashing before his eyes, this piece made innovative use of a variety of mediums. Actors and props became interchangeable: as an army of mannequins hung suspended above the stage, four ‘alive’ mannequins strutted around, heartlessly and cruelly personifying the fleeting, selfish attitude of our society’s tireless consumerism. Whilst still quite blatantly didactic, this scene came as a welcome tangent from the message of the piece as a whole.

At his lowest ebb, Everyman found himself in a landfill site, brought to life by a Mighty Boosh-esque conga line of giant bin bag creatures. Moves like this reminded the audience that, whilst pushing a clear moral message, medieval theatre was heavily focussed on comedy and entertainment value.

Quite contrastingly, the belting voice of Everyman’s mother sung out at the point when ‘Ev’ and his troupe finally accepted their demise. A chilling atmosphere was evoked as the chorus joined in song, acutely aware of the doom that had been impending from the start.

This dichotomy between seriousness and frivolity was perfectly matched in the figures of God and Death. God, a humble, servile cleaning lady, had equally balanced bitterness and benevolence as she cleared up everyones’ messes time and again. Meanwhile, Death wore a boiler suit and a cheeky be-flamed beanie hat, as the Irish cheeky-chappy relished his work.

Sadly there was no ‘get out of jail free’ card for Everyman, as his first entrance showed him plummet from the flies into a pit embedded on the stage. All further entrances and exits came from below, clarifying the inevitable demise of this character, who the audience had successfully warmed to as the play progressed.

As I said, this piece was championed by its use of the entire company; yet as they each personified an attribute of the lead character, and all ‘mysteriously’ disappeared from beside him at his death, in a looming crime scene tent, kudos must be given to Chiwetel Ejiofor for his tireless soul searching throughout. He was dismissive and deeply emotive in equal parts as he finally came to the realisation that the search for the self can only come as a collective; selfishness clearly can’t win in life or in the theatre, as this piece triumphantly proves.

A Penchant for Nutcases

During my degree I was assigned to read Jean Rhys’ Good Morning, Midnight; for those that don’t know it, it is about a woman named Sacha, and her struggle with social rejection and loneliness. Reading this in the week when I, also Sacha, was going through a break up, wasn’t ideal. Turns out it’s never nice to attend a lecture pinpointing why your namesake is unloveable, exactly when you yourself are feeling so.

This experience was a wake up call for me. I’ve always read avariciously, but never before considered myself an ‘escapist’ reader. But, clearly, reading a book that’s a little too close to home isn’t an entirely satisfying pursuit.

I wondered if it was this sense of escape and difference that has always drawn me to books written from the voice of someone totally mentally unstable. My two longstanding favourites are Nabokov’s Lolita and Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, narrated by a Paedophile and a gratuitously violent criminal respectively. Yet, rather than abhor me, these two lead characters totally won me over and sent my moral compass into a deeply concerning whirlwind. I would find myself agreeing that the eponymous Lolita was indeed a little bitch and so she kind of had it coming. Without realising I was being manipulated, I had drifted over to the narrator’s own dark side.

Quite differently, A Clockwork Orange draws the reader in by sharing a new language. Without any lessons, I learnt to understand the voice inside the book, thus feeling included in a secret club; this was the literary equivalent of the iconic secret handshake in The Parent Trap. Or, failing that, Burgess’s language enables one to become so engulfed in this alternate universe that it ceases to matter how words are spoken, which way is up or the difference between right and wrong. Beyond this, Burgess welcomes his reader to his side by setting up the establishment as the mutual enemy. The injustice is palpable; that’s one moral code that remains untwisted.

Unfortunately it seems that I’m now of a less impressionable age, or maybe I’ve analysed too many books and become hardened and cynical. I have found myself of late unable to be won over by my formerly favourite villains-come-narrators. Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, voiced by the somewhat autistic Francis and his psychopathic tendencies, left me cold (aside from the black comedy to be drawn from his totally deranged mindset.) Ironically, the mental state of the narrator which drew me to the book, also rendered that same character unable to open up any further than meticulously narrating the minutiae of plotted events. I found the same of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden; the dysfunctional narrators oppose outsiders so deeply within the novella, that their rejection of others extends beyond the confines of the page. Perhaps short novels simply don’t allow the growth necessary to convincingly alter a reader’s psyche. You can’t just be thrown in at the deep end of a fucked-up brain and immediately accept it!

Now that these books failed to offer me my alternate mode of thinking, I began to wonder what it was that we ever seek to gain from them to begin with. Is a reader’s desire to walk a mile in someone’s shoes intended to gain empathy? Or, should we accept this shorter, more shocking novels as fantastical, escapist freakshows?

Maybe, what began to trouble my self-confessed control-freakery, is the possibility that we, as readers, subconsciously really just want to be moulded and manipulated to see where we end up.

A Colourful Commentary

“God must be a painter; why else would he have so many colours?”- A Beautiful Mind.

Just as, for many centuries, black people were stigmatised and alienated as an abnormal ‘other’, we see obvious separatism between disabled people and us.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s infamous patients wear ‘greens’ and have wild red hair, whilst the staff members are pristinely monochromatic- white uniforms, against white walls, with black skin. This version of “coloured” people may inhabit an entirely different spectrum, but they are stigmatised just the same as their black counterparts were (/are) in their struggle for equality.

If we look beyond the all consuming blackness of depression and past the, perhaps ironically coloured, Blue Badge (inappropriate due to the colour’s associations with masculinity, tranquility and stability, unlike the stereotypically unstable, turbulently distressed woman), we see the full rainbow spectrum of disability: the charity awareness ribbon.

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But, how far does wearing a coloured ribbon raise awareness or show ones support for a certain minority? Do the colours actually mean anything? Should we demarcate a single colour for each condition? Or it this just an arbitrary means of classification, leading ultimately to a juvenile society akin to the colour-coded teams on sports day? And if racism is so widely condemned in our modern society, then why are we still colour-coding?!

When asked, a selection of people, between the ages of 20 and 60, were almost unanimously oblivious to what a list of coloured ribbons stood for. That is not to say they were entirely ignorant of charitable associations; many had a pretty good idea of charity logos, emblazoned on their memory by billboards and TV ads alike. What’s more, several of those surveyed donate to charity on a regular basis and even more of the group have experienced at least one of the associated conditions on a personal or familial basis. The issue (perhaps a loaded word in this context) seemed to be rather that several stars on the Hollywood Boulevard of charities outshone the humble lapel ribbons. How could an orange piece of fabric worn for those with ADHD possibly stand up against Channel 4’s recent celeb-studded, big-budget, iPad-flashing ‘Stand up to Cancer’ telethon?

The problem begins with a lack of organisation: there is no central registry for charities or causes to bagsy a colour for their own set of ribbons. As such, no two websites are in complete agreement on what the colours stand for, thus undermining their usefulness as an awareness mechanism.

Having said that, over 90% knew the answer to breast cancer pink. Perhaps this is thanks to a basic lateral thinking puzzle: pink means girls, girls have breasts, pink means breast cancer. Is awareness therefore just a case of being selective with the colour they choose? But I’m not sure Dulux sells an easily recognisable “cerebal palsy” or “spina bifida” alongside ‘sumptuous plum’ and ‘proud peacock’. And, by that logic, why did no one recognise that asthma is exacerbated by smoke, smoke is grey, therefore a grey ribbon supports asthma? Can it really be a simple case of the association game? In which case, which crayon would you select to draw a picture of mental health?

Perhaps just as surprising as those few and far between respondents who didn’t recognise the causal association of pink, was the vast number of people who didn’t immediately associate the red ribbon with AIDS awareness and support. After all, the AIDS ribbon came first, creating the very genre of charity ribbons. The World AIDS Day association gives itself a good pat on the back for no longer needing to provide an accompanying explanation when distributing their ribbons, as the symbol is so widely known. Unfortunately, or according to my research at least, this celebration of their celebrity status seems horribly premature.

They also claim that red was chosen to represent their cause as it is ‘bold and visible’- understandable reasons when trying to make a statement- and because it symbolises ‘passion, a heart and love’- which relates to AIDS because? By this logic, red ought to be the colour for all charitable causes, because giving to charity obviously means you have a heart, and because without passion, what will these causes achieve?

I wonder, therefore, if there is something to be said about the immediate associations with colours and whether or not that will effect how we view a certain charity or cause?

Many of the colours gleaned positive, even ridiculous, responses: Barney the Dinosaur, Elmer the Elephant and the tongue-in-cheek character Ron Burgundy (immortalised by Will Ferrell in Anchorman) were repeatedly apparent. Should we really align Alzheimer’s, autism and brain aneurisms respectively with these comical characters? This could be a way of ameliorating the difficult topic of disability, making it as easy and non-threatening to discuss as children’s television. Or does it tread the line of non-PC unacceptability, by trivialising life-altering and life-threatening conditions? Colours obviously hold so many varied associations with different people that it is perhaps too volatile a medium with which to handle the sensitive subject of disability and difference; one person’s ‘vomit’ is another’s ‘Jackson Pollock’. Suddenly colour-coding isn’t so arbitrary, nor is it the same binary it was during the civil rights movement; it is too heavily loaded. Most notably, colour affiliations with ‘the fucking Tories’, ‘fucking UKIP’ and ‘the fucking Liberals’ could alienate people from wearing a certain ribbon; better not to raise awareness for cystic fibrosis than risk being labelled one of Farage’s loyal followers.

A response which seemed particularly, albeit subconsciously, telling was that which guessed the multicoloured puzzle ribbon for Autism awareness was associated with MENSA. Under this definition the ribbon becomes a rosette, to be worn with pride rather than sympathy. What’s more, this answer doesn’t appear to be a complete stab in the dark, after all, MENSA is not altogether divorced from the savant branch of the autism spectrum. But if you saw someone walking along the street displaying a sign of their supreme intelligence, you’d be more likely to mutter something under your breath about being a snob, than to extend your congratulations. We only want difference to be apparent if we remain superior, in the privileged position to sympathise and help.

The most common response to the multi-coloured ribbon was the association of the Gay Pride rainbow flag; a ribbon which is worn as a celebration of difference. However, surely I’m not the only one uncomfortable with gay people having a ribbon at all? Are we really aligning sexuality with physical diseases and mental disorders; the DSM no longer considers it deviant, so why should we?

LGBT causes do have a rainbow ribbon of their own, but it looks like they are unfairly encroaching upon Autism’s turf. The fact that ‘gay pride’ was a relatively common answer, much like the pink ribbon being general knowledge, stands as a testament to successful PR. Perhaps it’s not a case of how relevant your ribbon colour is, it’s simply a matter of who you saw wearing it. In our celebrity driven culture even deciding NOT to wear a red poppy in the run up to Remembrance day is considered newsworthy; so when a group of good looking, famous women tell you to wear pink, you do.

So, after all this; what really is the point?!

Are we participating in an illiterate interpretation of forcing disabled people to wear demarcating signs: “I have *insert disability here*” Sounds familiar…

jewish-star-holocaust

What do these ribbons really mean? Are they raising awareness, acting as a conversation starter, like a grown up version of the ubiquitous ratty wristband that provokes “What festivals have you been at this summer then?” Are we wearing them in a stance of self-congratulations? Screaming to the world “I know all about this disease you’ve never even heard of and, what’s more, I care!” Or, embodying our finest patronising selves, are we daring to pronounce “I empathise”?!

Maybe we’ve simply outgrown charity ribbons. In a society where a #nomakeupselfie campaign can raise £8million for Cancer Research UK in just six days; where Facebook can be completely consumed by people dousing themselves in ice water for the, until then widely unpublicised, ALS/MND foundation, perhaps ribbons need to go virtual, or preferably viral. It’s far easier to capture the world’s attention online than on your lapel.

But of course, these methods are not without their problems. Why should it be considered a statement for a woman to be seen in the public domain without make up on? This, once again, plays up to gender stereotypes: pink means girls, girls wear make up. It seems that, as a society, we can’t find a way to discuss illness and disability without drawing trite, maybe even borderline offensive, links to popular culture. We want to pride ourselves on tolerance and inclusivity, but can’t help ourselves when it comes to drawing distinct lines of definition, segregating one subset of society from another. Colour-coding is deeply ingrained in our cultural psyche.

Perhaps the answer is to create a single, all encompassing colour: the Pangea of charity ribbons, that says “We are all united in our difference- no one is abnormal.” But, in the interest of saving fabric, if everyone simply didn’t wear a ribbon, the effect would be much the same.

I don’t intend to heartlessly reject charitable giving, merely to point out that, clearly, awareness ribbons don’t achieve their primary purpose of raising awareness! And, if they fail to do that, they merely stand for segregation and a culture of pointing out: “Look, they’re different from me.”


(All quotes and stats from my own anonymised surveys, conducted for this assignment during my BA)

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