Sexual assault and standing up: Experiencing ‘Public House’

A reviewer talks about what it means to ‘watch’

Cambridge drama Cambridge Theatre public house sexual assault sexual harassment trauma

(Content warning concerning sexual assault, trauma, harassment.)

You're in the basement bar at Jesus College to see the show Public House, and the place is packed. Everyone's wandering around, chatting, some holding programmes, some holding drinks; you know that you're not a performer, but you don't know who is.

Slowly the dynamic starts to change. Some voices start to rise above the throng. Some people become more noticeable, more active. You
walk up to a pair of performers, one of whom is acting distressed, and they give you a strange look as you follow them across the room, but you keep following them (because they're performing, after all) even though you feel strangely embarrassed. Then they catch your eye again and you hear them whispering:


'Who even is she?'

'I don't know, I swear I've never met her before…'

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Image credit: Ciaran Walsh

I've been a reviewer for almost two years. I've experienced pretty much every type of show I thought Cambridge had to offer, from song
cycles to stories of the Iraq war to lesbians eating quiche. But at that moment – before any of the show's monologues, before any
mention of sexual assault or trauma – I, for the first time, had something pointed out to me: you are not entitled to watch everything.

That feels strange in a theatrical context ('I've bought my ticket, of course I'm entitled to watch everything'), but this is about more than
theatre. I was not entitled to listen to the stories of sexual assault and harassment and trauma in Public House: the performers and
writers allowed us to listen.

And because of that, we, the listeners, have a responsibility to value that gift.

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Audience and performers in Public House

Public House was intensely disconcerting: people tried to distance themselves – stay still, not be involved, just watch – but it was so hard
to do that as the show darkened, as whispers started spreading around the room and then taking shape: 'slut,' 'I'm going to split you in
half -'. I couldn't stop following one performer who kept walking around touching other performers, and then lying about it or saying 'don't
pretend you didn't like it.' I couldn't stop – I wanted him to stop. The atmosphere was so charged with the implication: you are watching this happen and you're not doing anything. You can't be neutral when people are getting hurt.

Most of the show was snapshots, snatches of dialogue, short scenes, and then the main, last part involved seven performers sitting in a circle
in the centre of the room, all of the listeners (and other performers and directors) sitting down around them, and them retelling seven stories about varying experiences of rape, sexual assault and related trauma. I was talking to one of the performers in the bar afterwards and they pointed out, 'When before have 100 people sat down and heard people's stories about rape?' Not often.

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And not such diversity of stories, either. That was a really valuable part of the production, the variety and complexity of narratives, the witness given to the moment – the brushed hand, the whispered comment – as well as more 'complete' stories, and the aftermath, people talking about not being sure what to call their trauma or how to talk about it or what they 'should' feel about it.

So what do you do, as a reviewer, when you come to 'review' a show like this? I have reviewed shows with sensitive subject matter before, and that's not specifically a call to review something in a different style. What made me want to review, or re-view, Public House like this – to step back –
is that the show was a method for delivering wider messages: the stories themselves, but also really important questions on what it is to 'watch', to participate, and to judge.

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Rehearsal for Public House

If I was sitting here making quality-judgements on, say, how 'convincing' Public House was, or the effectiveness of its monologues – even extremely positive quality-judgements – I would be sitting in the exact comfortable armchair that Public House was trying to take from us, settling down and acting like I was in a position to coolly observe and take notes. I wasn't, nor should I have been. I can tell you that the production was absolutely
brilliant at doing what it wanted to do – immersing performers and crew and listeners in this intensely alienating space where you felt like you wanted to both scream and stay silent, where the way people moved and looked at each other and responded to each other bodily was often as eloquent as actual words, where not speaking felt so charged: 'I realised,' said one performer, explaining why she hadn't spoken up when a man was touching her, 'that I was scared.'

I'm limited in responding to Public House outside of how I was affected (deeply). And that's a difficult limitation to grapple with as a reviewer. On the one hand, shows want to elicit an engaged response, but equally, they didn't create the show for any one individual's benefit, or for the audience's benefit. The audience were an integral part of this show – to the point that the bounds between 'performer' and 'audience' became blurred – but people's stories of trauma don't always have a sympathetic or 'listening' audience and that doesn't make their stories less powerful or significant. We have importance and ethical responsibility as an audience, but we don't 'own' the show or the stories.

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Say I'd gone to Public House and not gotten anything out of it – maybe due to not having any experience whatsoever of trauma. If I'd then come back and said '2/5, didn't really feel anything so it didn't work', that seems morally abhorrent to me. But I am working off my personal opinions and experience of a show when I review it, and to an extent I'm always wondering 'was that show bad or did I just not 'get it'?'

I don't think there's a straightforward answer, just that we need to
be open to being self-critical. Why do I think this? Why do I respond like that? Am I responding adversely to this drama because I think it's done/presented badly, or because it presents views I disagree with?

I can't wind up Public House with a conclusive statement because that's not the point. I think it was a brilliantly done, fervent, eloquent show
that drained me of all my resources just in being privy to it and I'm so glad it happened. All the performers deserve credit, and particular recognition is owed to the directorial team (director Carina Harford, assistant directors Becca Bradburn, Grainne Dromgoole, Eliza Bacon and Isla Anderson, and producer Laura Cameron).

I'm not sure what to say – I'm not sure what to think, or
where to go from here. I'm just glad it took the chairs away. Some things you have to stand up for.

Public House donated 50% of its proceeds to the Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre. You can donate here.