Review: Tenet, Gate Theatre
Originally written for Spoonfed.
Greyscale’s latest work, the first in the Gate’s ‘Resist!’ season, comes with a tongue-twisting disclaimer. This is, as we are told upon entering the auditorium, “a very true story about the revolutionary politics of telling the truth about truth as edited by someone who is not Julian Assange in any literal sense”. If that’s a mouthful, then what we are fed after we take our seats is even harder to digest.
Intertwining the lives of Wikileaks founder Assange and revolutionary nineteenth-century mathematician Evariste Galois, Tenet plays with truth, mathematics, radicalism, power, metaphor, roots and polynomial equations. Keeping up?
At the centre of the piece is the concept of mathematical logic as a radical way of seeing the world. Performers Lucy Ellinson and Jon Foster begin with a familiar mathematical question – how do you find x? – and use this as the basis for questioning our understanding of truth and of the world around us. Like radical genius Galois, we are prodded into finding a new way of thinking. In maths, as arguably in life, the radical simplifies a complex equation; radical thinking, therefore, is demanded if we are to understand and challenge the complicated nature of the status quo. Behind this there is also the issue of Assange’s role as the “editor” of Galois’ life and work, questioning the power and reliability of those who hold the book of facts.
There is a lot going on here, sometimes too much. Despite running at a swift sixty minutes, this is full to the brim with ideas, and difficult ideas at that. As our heads swim with numbers and concepts, it can feel like we, along with the tragically short-lived Galois, are running out of time to work it all out. Fortunately, creators Lorne Campbell and Sandy Grierson never make this feel too much like the classroom; as Ellinson knowingly comments, you can’t make the audience work that hard.
Despite the demanding subject matter, the piece that Campbell and Grierson have assembled is also very funny, and when it gets too hard there are always tea and biscuits helpfully on hand. Maths and theatre, meanwhile, make unlikely but surprisingly comfortable bedfellows. After all, the metaphor that we willingly immerse ourselves in when we watch a performance is just another kind of equation – one thing always stands for another.
The conventions of theatre are also up for analysis in a performance that is sardonically served with a “soupçon of post-modern deconstruction”; we are presented with a set within a set within a set, the performers interrupt the narrative to contradict one another, an explicitly mentioned fourth wall is conjured up and smashed down.
Upon exiting Greyscale’s world, there is a desire to echo Galois’ call for more time and rewind this tightly packed performance in order to mull it over again in all its intricate complexity. Maths may be a straightforward case of black and white, but this intriguing, challenging night of theatre treads the same area of grey occupied by the company responsible for creating it.
Some further thoughts on Tenet …
Never does the vicious word count seem more cruel than when attempting to crystallize a piece such as Tenet. During the hour-long performance, I scribbled possibly the most notes I have ever made at the theatre, all the while trying to keep my eyes ahead so as not to miss one minute of the ever-shifting performance. I feel as though I really needed two viewings to fully process everything that was going on – one to take notes and one to simply absorb. Away from the rush and heat of the performance space, my initial impressions have cooled, but there are still a good few more words to peel away from my frazzled brain.
Firstly, I want to write more about Julian Assange’s role as the “editor” of the piece. If we’re getting critical, this is slightly underexplored, but that is perhaps because there is simply so much else going on. Since formulating my own thoughts above, I’ve read other reviews of the play, some of which see Assange as an outlying narrator whose relevance is crowbarred in. While Assange may be less of a central figure than Galois, this was not how I saw it at all. If anything, he functions as an essential conduit for Galois’ story; we see only what he chooses to select from his “book of facts”, further illustrating the reiterated point that knowledge is power. As an individual who demonstrated to the extremes just how powerful knowledge can be and whose actions prompt troubling questions about what knowledge should and should not be released, Assange’s inclusion is anything but arbitrary.
Lucy Ellinson’s Assange protests early on “I am not involvable”, before proceeding to involve himself again and again in the process of storytelling. The two performers frequently interrupt and contradict one another, their voices competing for our attention, Assange overwriting Galois’ own story. It is a potent demonstration before our eyes of the immense influence held by the gatekeepers of history. Who are we meant to believe? What can we trust? For me, Tenet was not only deliciously perplexing because of the complexities of advanced algebra (and maths was never my strong point); Greyscale invite complexity and ambiguity from all angles, a risky but laudable choice. This is theatre which demands engagement from its audience.
Which conveniently brings me onto the second point I wanted to explore further: audience interaction. This has to be possibly the gentlest brand of interactivity to be found on London’s stages – one game audience member was even offered an encouraging hug on press night. With the help of some tea and biscuits, Greyscale seem to have perfected the delicate balance of involving their audience without scaring them off. Yet while the level of performance asked of the audience is relatively minimal, its use prompts intriguing questions about the performer/spectator relationship, the audience dynamic and the wider issue of public protest.
At one point, Jon Foster’s frantic Galois raises us all to our feet, gets us to hold hands and has us collectively, if a little awkwardly, humming “La Marseillaise”. It is a vivid illustration of the power inherent in harnessing an audience. But a moment later we are back in our seats and the balance has shifted back once again to where it was, demonstrating that the wall can be smashed through but it will always quietly reform – a fact that resonates with politics as much as with theatre. As Galois observes, a situation can change, but it can also change back. In another interesting choice, Ellinson and Foster also openly discuss the deliberate choice of the Gate and its typical audience demographic, which opens up a whole other debate about the importance of the type of audience (and their political leanings) to a piece of theatre.
Without seeing this piece all over again, which I’m sorely tempted to do, it is impossible to fully investigate Greyscale’s creation to the level it deserves. Part of my brain is still trying to catch up. Perhaps the best sort of metaphor for Tenet is not an algebraic one but, inspired by the emergency biscuits, a dessert related one. Because really Greyscale’s play is a lot like brain freeze; it makes the head hurt, but it’s more than worth the pain.