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Matt Trueman: why we don't want spoilers

Matt Trueman on spoiler culture and the value we place on surprise


There's a moment in Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone when four women drinking tea in the sun discuss spoilers. They're talking about some television programme or other, only one of the women is a series behind the rest. "Don't tell me," she begs, shutting her eyes and almost putting her hands over her ears. "Don't tell us about series three."

There were no spoilers ahead of Escaped Alone's opening. A week before press night, its four cast members – Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson – were interviewed in the Independent on Sunday. "We're going to be very enigmatic," said Findlay. So they were. The feature reveals next to nothing about its subject. You can almost hear it grinding towards its word-count as the foursome talk around the show in the vaguest of terms.

Famously, Churchill never gives interviews. That means we're left to interpret her plays for ourselves, with no clue as to the artistic intentions behind them, but it also means a culture of secrecy surrounds the work – at least until reviews come out. Before last week, we knew very little about Escaped Alone – not much more than the casting of four senior actresses and a slimline strapline: "Three friends and a neighbour. A summer of afternoons in the back yard. Tea and catastrophe."

The marketing of the movie goes some way to undermining the art of it.

It's rare to know so little on encountering a piece of art. The other week, I went to watch Emma Donoghue's film Room. The film's opening scenes are deliberately cryptic: they set out to intrigue and to mystify. We see a small boy and an adult woman alone in a room. They share a small bed, a bath and an exercise routine. He runs back and forth, two metres this way, two metres that; a shuttle run between the walls. It's a sequence designed to make you ask questions: these everyday activities spiked with oddity. You know something's not right, but you don't know quite what.

Except, of course, you do. You've probably seen the trailer. You might have watched its star Brie Larson on some chat show or other. Perhaps you caught the hype around Donaghue's original novel. You've almost certainly picked up a sense of the film's premise – spoiler: a young woman kept captive in a room with her son, who, aged five, has never stepped foot outside. That makes those first five minutes rather odd: a concerted effort to be oblique about something we likely already know and understand. The marketing of the movie goes some way to undermining the art of it.

Spoiler culture points to something interesting: the value we place on surprise and, by extension, on storytelling. Rupert Goold and Robert Icke have both extolled the centrality of surprise, pointing to box set storylines and end-of-season cliffhangers, and aim, in their work, to make old stories afresh. James Macdonald, director of Escaped Alone, recently told me that he chooses to revive lesser-known plays over bona-fide classics because he likes to take an audience unawares. "I like doing plays people don't know," he explained. "I enjoy going to the theatre and being told a story I haven't heard before." For all we're told that linear narratives are so last year, that fragments and non-fiction rule, our desire for surprise suggest otherwise; that we want great stories after all - and we want them unspoiled.