Alison Croggon finds that Mish Grigor’s The Talk raises confronting questions about consent
NB: This response is extremely spoilery.
Mish Grigor, one third of the experimental feminist outfit Post, makes work that exists in the volatile space between art installation and theatre. She’s known for creating theatre that pushes the boundaries of performance, blurring the line between life and art until sometimes you can’t see it at all.
At the centre of The Talk is the question of consent. It’s a show designed to trouble its audience with its own complicity, sliding explosive questions under Grigor’s extraordinarily charming performance persona. It’s like a mild theatrical equivalent of the (now discredited as fraudulent) Stanford Prison experiment, which has long been held up as an example of the how human beings will inevitably abuse any power given to them over others. In this case, the demonstration is about how easily does art elide questions of consent? The answer seems to be, very easily indeed.
Since the #MeToo phenomenon and a well-publicised rape case drove it into the headlines, the question of sexual consent has been at the centre of many recent public discussions. Like all human things, consent is complicated, and it doesn’t only involve sex. Mish (I’m referring to Mish as the character, as opposed to Grigor, the artist creating the show) deals with consent brusquely in The Talk: she ignores it altogether.
I tell them that my family asked me to change their names to protect their identity (I haven’t). I tell them that my family asked me to take out some of the more intimate details of the interviews (I haven’t). I tell them that my family finally requested that I send them a final draft of the script for their approval before performing it in front of anybody (I haven’t). I then ask them to raise a glass of lukewarm overpriced champagne and say ‘cheers’ to my family, and to all the things I haven’t done for them. Then, we read.
Together we enact their sex stories, my sex stories, and conversations about our sexuality.
All this is laid out early in the show, before an audience of people who like feminist experimental theatre, so presumably feminist ourselves. We cheerily agree to be Mish’s family, and to her statement that this is taken as our explicit consent. When she says that her family have given no consent, and that she has deceived them about what she’s doing, we all laugh.
The entire show is constructed from transcripts of interviews with Grigor’s family, which are read by various members of the audience who are chosen at random. One person refuses, but most people enter willingly, becoming her mother, her brothers, other members of the extended family. We are drawn into what becomes an increasingly uncomfortable expose of other people’s sex lives, an investigation prompted by the sobering and, in the context, shocking revelation, halfway through the show, that Grigor’s brother Will is HIV positive.
This leads to a family discussion of Will’s sex life which Mish derails by launching into a long and hugely embarrassing story about condoms disappearing inside her vagina during sex, only to fall out later at inappropriate times. The Talk exposes the ways in which the diagnosis of a sexually transmitted disease focuses a spotlight on the sex lives of those affected, especially gay men, in ways that in other circumstances are considered invasive. It demonstrates, by a series of incremental steps, how willingly we as audience members might participate in that violation. Sex is a process, a series of actions. So is a performance. At what point does anyone consent to a process? At what point might consent be withdrawn?
According to Mish, her family had withdrawn consent. But here we all were, participating in the violation of that withdrawn permission, all witness to a work of art in which Mish confesses sadly that she had hoped that this confession and exposure would lead to some epiphany of togetherness, but which in fact had led her to asking strangers to stand in for her estranged family.
When I walked out, I wondered what was real and what was fiction: my feelings about the show changed entirely depending on which I thought it was. Was the recording of Mish having sex actually a recording of Grigor having actual sex? How comfortable was I listening to that? (Not very). As a fiction, what an interesting conceit! As a non-fiction, what a…debacle!
After the show, still mulling it over, I found myself chatting to critical colleague and performer Jessi Lewis, who is HIV positive. He was shaken, blindsided by the HIV references and angered by how they were dealt with in the show. “There should have been a warning,” he said. (Yes, I’m quoting with his permission). This was where the wobbliness around consent snapped into focus for me. Yes, there should have been a warning. There are real reasons people might need to know about what they might confront in a show, and it’s easily dealt with, even for those who don’t want to reveal spoilers: many companies indicate there is troubling content and give a contact for those who wish to discuss the specifics.
The Talk left me with similar questions to those I had about Luke George’s Bunny, a bondage performance that was part of Asia TOPA 2017. It was another show built on audience participation and it prompted me (and others, all women to my knowledge) to walk out. Again, consent, notably the consent of audience members, hadn’t been thought through. Many women with experiences of sexual assault, including me, found Bunny a very unpleasant experience: as audience members watching, we were plunged, without forewarning, into complicity in an act that we found traumatic.
Because of its intimacy, participatory theatre can be a uniquely powerful form; but precisely because of that power, it seems to me that it requires a lot of thought about what audiences are consenting to be part of. The nature of public performance means that you can’t know in advance what the personal histories of your audience members are. This is why offering sufficient information beforehand to those who need it is crucial. And no, none of this is about people being wusses. It’s exactly the same issue as warnings on strobe lighting for epileptics.
It turns out that Grigor’s family did consent to her use of that material, so Mish’s championing of the lack of consent is a fiction. Knowing that made me feel a little less queasy. Or did it? I was still left with my own complicity, my own easy laughing along. And I still feel uneasy, not only about my own responses, but about the set-up of the show itself. I guess it’s supposed to raise a fundamental question about what art does to life, about how this crossing of boundaries is heroicised (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad ones). And it does.
It seems to me that eliciting these questions underlies Grigor’s performance, but I wonder how much the comedy obscures the point. It could be that Grigor is simply too seductive a performer, and that the topic itself – the inhibitions around sex – is such a volatile focus that the issue of consent is completely elided. Sex is funny, after all. Embarrassment is a rich field for comedy. Transgression of taboos can feel exciting.
Like everything human, it’s complicated.
The Talk, written and performed by Mish Grigor. Collaborating Artists: Anne Thompson and Jess Olivieri. Northcote Town Hall, Darebin Speakeasy, until July 14. Bookings
Auslan Interpreted Performance: 8pm, Thursday July 12.
Relaxed Performance: 2pm, Saturday July 14. Please download the relaxed performance pack from here.