From Sport to Stage

The widest definition of in-yer-face theatre - embodied in the work of playwrights such as Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Philip Ridley and Martin McDonagh, who all burst onto the scene in the 1990s - is any drama that takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. It is a theatre of sensation: it jolts both actors and spectators out of conventional responses, touching nerves and provoking alarm. Often such drama employs shock tactics, or is shocking because it is new in tone or structure, or because it is bolder or more experimental than what audiences are used to.

Questioning moral norms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or should be shown onstage; it also taps into more primitive feelings, smashing taboos, mentioning the forbidden, creating discomfort. Crucially, it tells us more about who we really are. Unlike the type of theatre that allows us to sit back and contemplate what we see in detachment, the best in-yer-face theatre takes us on an emotional journey, getting under our skin. It is experiential, not speculative.

The phrase 'in-your-face' is defined by the New Oxford English Dictionary as something 'blatantly aggressive or provocative, impossible to ignore or avoid'. The Collins English Dictionary adds the adjective 'confrontational'. The phrase originated in American sports journalism during the mid-1970s, and gradually seeped into more mainstream slang over the following decade. It implies that you are being forced to see something close up, that your personal space has been invaded.

You'll Know It When You See It

How can you tell if a play is in-yer-face? It really isn't difficult: the language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each another, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react: either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen. It is the kind of theatre that inspires us to use superlatives, whether in praise or condemnation.

Usually, when writers use shock tactics, it is because they have something urgent to say. If they are dealing with disturbing subjects, or want to explore difficult feelings, shock is one way of waking up the audience. Provocation in performance can range from a new tone of voice being heard for the first time, a question of sensibility, to deliberate attacks on an audience's prejudices. The most successful plays are often those that seduce the audience with a naturalistic mood and then hit it with intense emotional material, or those where an experiment in form encourages people to question their assumptions. In such cases, what is being renegotiated is the relationship between audience and performers.

Courting Controversy

Controversy may often be sought, but usually only takes off by chance. For a play to be controversial, it needs to touch raw nerves. Often, although the audience's feelings of discomfort and outrage are real enough, the form that controversy takes is itself a performance: walkouts, letters to the press, leader articles denouncing a 'waste of public money', calls for bans or cuts in funding, mocking cartoons, questions in parliament, or even prosecution on charges of obscenity or blasphemy.

A Shock Above Other Art Forms

In-yer-face theatre has the potential to be much more visceral, more shocking than other art forms. It can sometimes be an emotional journey that gives you a startling feeling of having lived through the experience being represented. This can tell you more about an extreme state of mind than just reading about it. And since censorship in Britain was abolished in 1968, theatre has been a much freer cultural space than film or television. But if provocative theatre is a search for a deeper knowledge of ourselves, what does it tell us?

Because humans are language animals, words often seem to cause more offence than the acts to which they refer. Taboo words, such as 'fuck' and 'cunt', work because we give them a magic power, which makes them more than simple signs that describe a real-life event or thing. The violent impact of sexual swearwords in British culture says much about what we feel about sex or women. Because they refer to sex, but are violent in intent, those words pack a double punch. Unlike euphemism, which is a way of defusing difficult subjects, of circling around a meaning, the swearword aims to compact more than one hatred, becoming a verbal act of aggression, a slap in the mouth. In theatre, 'bad language' seems even stronger because it is used openly.

Private Versus Public Violations

Staging private and intimate situations in public generates a strong emotional charge which can feel more unsettling than the same experience in real life. Theatre is a deliberate act, and can cause offence because the representation of real life is invested with more power than real life itself.

When it comes to showing sex onstage, its public performance immediately raises questions about privacy, voyeurism and 'realistic' acting. We may suspend disbelief about many emotions in theatre, but we know that most sex acts in public are not the real thing. Nevertheless, showing sex in public is often unsettling because it is a reminder of many of our most intimate feelings, and of what we most desire to keep secret. Images of sex cause anxiety because they refer to powerful and uncontrollable feelings. When sex is coupled with emotions such as neediness or loneliness, the effect can be immensely disturbing.

Nude, Rude & Crude

Nudity onstage is more powerful than nudity in films, paintings or sculpture for the simple reason that a real person is actually present. Unable to hide behind camera angles or fig leaves, the nudity of the actor can expose human frailty as well as the body beautiful, our mortality as well as our resilience. A naked body's inherent vulnerability can be heavy with metaphorical significance: it can be morally 'exposed', or 'stripped' of illusions. At other times, removing your clothes can be an act of political power, of liberation from convention, a statement of transgression that can expose a spectator's mixed feelings about being naked. As always, responses to a natural fact, nudity, imply a cultural act, nakedness in all the many meanings of the word.

Violence becomes impossible to ignore when it confronts you by showing pain, humiliation and degradation. Sometimes this is a question of showing violent acts literally; at other times, the suggestion of extreme mental cruelty is enough to disturb. Violent actions are shocking because they break the rules of debate; they go beyond words and thus can get out of control. Violence feels primitive, irrational and destructive. Violence onstage also disturbs when we feel the emotion behind the acting, or catch ourselves enjoying the violence vicariously.

Contested Confrontation

Provocative theatre is controversial because, although most people assume that mere titillation is bad and that gratuitous violence is irresponsible, no one can agree which plays fall into which category.

Just because something is shocking does not mean it is automatically good or praiseworthy. Just because a work is openly aggressive does not mean that it is profound, or excellent, or ethical. The wish to disgust may be politically motivated, but it can also be puerile. Since almost any theatrical image can be used either in a way that conveys moral outrage or in a way that is voyeuristic and reactionary, a negative reaction to sensation is not necessarily philistine. For these reasons, confrontational theatre is a constantly contested territory.

The above is an edited extract from In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (Faber & Faber, priced £9.99), by theatre critic Aleks Sierz. For further information on this title, visit the In-Yer-Face Theatre website.

The RSC's production of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore (pictured), first seen in Stratford, plays at The Pit at London's Barbican Centre until 23 February 2002. Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House, premiered last year at the National, transfers to the West End's Aldwych Theatre for a limited season from 6 February to 16 March 2002.