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Megan Vaughan: The Baader-Meinhof effect for winter theatre

Have you heard of the Baader-Meinhof effect? No, not the group of leftwing German militants founded in the 1970s by Andrea Baader and Ulrike Meinhof; I mean the psychological phenomenon that takes their name. Kinda like confirmation bias, it’s another indication that our brains are hardwired to seek out patterns.

Take this example:

Let’s imagine you hear a new interesting fact for the first time on a Tuesday. Say, for example, that Danny Dyer was Pinter’s muse (true story). You absorb that fact, think about it for half an hour or so, maybe go ‘wow’ under your breath a bit, and then move on.

But suddenly everywhere you look there is more Danny Dyer and Pinter: Dyer on Sunday Brunch, reading from his autobiography; an article shared on Facebook on the anniversary of Pinter’s death; a triple-bill happening at the Guildhall; reviews of the Wooster Group’s production of The Room are banned by Samuel French; then there’s the cover of TV Quick, brooding at you in the Sainsbury’s queue, heavy with new meaning. You turn to the checkout assistant: “He used to be Pinter’s muse y’know.”

That’s the Baader-Meinhof effect, the way your brain foregrounds a newly-acquired fact, making you suddenly hyper-aware of other instances, mentions or reminders of it that may follow. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Carl Jung had a take on this as well, except he called it synchronicity. Jung reckoned that, because we’re all members of a social group, if one person learns something new, their awareness of this fact will affect the group collectively, and actively cause a greater number of references to that fact to occur.

So, not only have I learnt about Danny Dyer and Pinter working together, but my knowledge of it has seeped down into our shared social psyche and made everyone else more likely to encounter them too. All this, without watching a single episode of EastEnders.

This Baader-Meinhof and synchronicity stuff is proving quite helpful when I think about the work I’ve seen since the new year. No, I haven’t seen any Pinter revivals, nor anything with Danny Dyer in it (more’s the pity); instead I’m seeing horrible trauma everywhere, on every stage and in every show, like we’ve all been infected by some sci-fi virus. There’s individual suffering, yes, but it’s more than just that; it’s a collective distress.

My evidence, your honour: in Expiry Date by Babafish, part of the London International Mime Festival, a dying man is revisited by all the most difficult times in his relationships, while his inevitable and fast-approaching death is manifest in dominoes, like an unspecified predator chasing him down; the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Herons [1] gives us a violent response to a community’s torment, the memory of a dead girl infecting not just the people she knew, but the physical location of her final moments; Whose London Is It Anyway? festival at Camden People’s Theatre shows us lives lived by postcode and waiting list, rendered powerless by housing policy; in Ridiculusmus’ Give Me Your Love [2], war veteran Zach tries to isolate himself and his post-traumatic stress disorder under a box in an empty room, but the exterior world creeps through the gaps.

Expiry Date. Photo: Sigrid Spinnox
Expiry Date. Photo: Sigrid Spinnox

It’s not meaningless that Zach’s initial coping strategy in Give Me Your Love relies upon shrinking his world to a manageable size. Like Jung’s synchronicity, there is hardship and difficulty soaking into our lives from all around. Is it so surprising that our theatremakers are bringing that to their work, creating their own mini-exorcisms? We once said that going to the theatre was respite from the trials of life, that it was ‘escapism’, but these shows are dark and heavy and loaded with anxiety. Fuck it, even Grey Gardens at Southwark [3]Playhouse, an actual bona fide musical – with songs and everything – is a study of unhappy co-dependency, mental illness and rigid class politics, all played out in an unfriendly town.

“But Meg,” you say, “this is the theatre. These are our stories. There will always be threat and peril, for that is how we build our narratives. Could it be that you are misreading the regular theatregoing experience in light of basic midwinter malaise?”

Fair point. Could well be. I’m probably predisposed to picking out the dark and troubling stuff, and, let’s be honest, it’s always in the critics’ interest to find some trend or other to cough up 1,000 words about. But could it be that the reason these works are programmed in January, when both temperatures and bank accounts are low, is due to a presupposed communal frame of mind? I dunno. Maybe seasonal affective disorder has permeated everything. Maybe that golf club buggery scene in Herons is simply more appropriate to the winter months. But could it be that there is less hope on display than usual? Of everything I’ve seen in January, only that Ridiculusmus show gives a glimmer of a happy ending, and even then poor Zach’s still in his box.

Perhaps if we all come together, have a beer, and think about Danny Dyer really hard, our energies will focus and we’ll be able to meditate him right out of Albert Square and back to the theatre. Everyone together now: think Danny Dyer.

And if that doesn’t work (fair warning: it probably won’t), there are always these to look forward to in February:

Eilidh MacAskill’s Stud is one of the highlights of Queer Contact festival up in Manchester, which runs from February 4-14 to coincide with LGBT History Month. MacAskill has superlative comic timing and an impressive range of visual knob gags, but Stud is clever too, dissing Freud for his heteronormativity via architecture and DIY. (If I could, I’d also be buying tickets for The Daily Grind by Laurie Brown and Fadoublegot by Jamal Gerald.)

Fox Symphony by Foxy and Husk gets a run at Battersea Arts Centre from February 15-17, and is weird and vivid and very, very brilliant. Foxy takes lip-synch beyond cabaret, creating a snapshot of an increasingly globalised world through the eyes of an animal. The early version I saw in 2014 gave me my first encounter with a jellied eel, but it was unforgettable for many other reasons besides.

Andreas Constantinou in The Womanhouse. Photo: Himherandit Productions
The Womanhouse. Photo: Himherandit Productions

Dance now, and a bit of a wildcard that I’ve picked out purely because the image on the website looks so cool. Redoing Gender 1.5/The Womanhouse (February 25) is a double-bill showcase performance at Trinity Laban by Andreas Constantinou, apparently one of the 20 most exciting choreographers in Europe. To be honest though, they had me at the naked dude in the monkey mask.

But before all that, Third Angel has revived Presumption (at Northern Stage from February 3-5) to mark the company’s 20th anniversary. From what I gather, it’s the story of one relationship told through the medium of Ikea furniture, and, speaking as someone with a quasi-sexual interest in storage solutions, I’m mega-excited to be making the trip up north for it. Fingers crossed for some Vittsjo nesting tables.