To witness an audience united in uproar is a thrilling and daunting experience. Individuals become a vociferous pack, reacting physically and baying as one. Feeling simultaneously immersed in, yet detached from, that collective response provides a glimpse into the sheer power of theatre as a live medium demanding a live response. It is not, however, an experience one expects from a Friday morning at The Unicorn Theatre.
Carl Miller’s Red Fortress, which plays at the children’s theatre until November 8, is a hopelessly idealistic piece that dreams of a Golden Age in which “children learn no hate and no one is an infidel”. It pits three teenagers – Rabia, a Muslim girl; Iago, a Chrisian; and Luis, a Jew – against the might of the Spanish Inquisition. Alongside their failed quest to prevent the fall of Granada, a triangle of unrequited love emerges, leading to a small act of defiance against an authoritarian regime in the form of three shared kisses.
First, Iago and Rabia lock lips, then Rabia and Luis, and finally, Luis and Iago. It’s a brave moment; though perhaps too aware of the reaction it seeks from its young audience. To an adult viewer these are quaint meetings of lips, a world away from the beached writhing of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr. To children, the fleeting kisses represent a forbidden unknown – casual, charged and exploratory. Gasps and tentative wolf-whistles build to aghast catcalls and repulsion. Within seconds a restless gaggle of school children becomes a tumultuous sea of shock, bouncing in their seats like a stereo’s volume bargraph.
Their reaction undoubtedly has something to do with the taboo of sexual gratification. These are not the functional kisses expressing a mutual relationship that permeate children’s entertainment, but the culminations of lop-sided desire. As Rabia, Géhrane Strehler turns from one partner to another in a second. It is a collectively orchestrated activity, rather than the familiar exclusivity of physical relations. On one level, the children see it as a titillating test at the edges of social norms, as their own exploration through the actors onstage.
However, their primary provocation herein is the final kiss between Iago and Luis, which triggers ‘urghs’ and ‘bleurghs’ that linger on when the pair accidentally hold hands minutes later. The young audience’s shared response of genuine rejection of the act is only furthered by the vague recognition that the kiss is not solely embedded in the fiction but actually happening before their eyes, between two real men.
Of course, children make for an honest audience, unabashed at displaying boredom or delight, but a response so strongly animal from a crowd so young is shocking in a society that believes itself accepting of homosexuality. There is undoubtedly a prejudice at play in schools, which can only stem from a more latent intolerance across society.
That DV8’s verbatim exploration of homophobia, To Be Straight With You, opens at the National Theatre this week is both necessary and urgent; not as reprimand to the behaviour of its own sympathetic, liberal audience, but as a firm reminder, rooted in reality, that such attitudes exist and demand reaction, that tolerance extends further than mere passive responsibility. If we are to get that message into playgrounds, surely the exposure of concrete realities must replace dreamy romanticism.