- Ecologies of Precarity in Twenty-First Century Theatre: Politics, Affect, Responsibility by Marissia Fragkou
In 1992 sociologist Ulrich Beck published Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, proposing risk and its management as the defining conditions of contemporary life. Beck's thesis proved exceedingly popular across a number of fields and furthered an understanding of the world as punctuated by a succession of emergencies, crises, and catastrophes. Marissia Fragkou's Ecologies of Precarity offers an alternative theorization of the contemporary moment as not a "state of exception and an unprecedented emergency of huge magnitude" (4), but instead as a social ecology of precarity in which climate change, dispossession, violence, intolerance, and other issues are complexly related. Through an explicitly feminist lens, Fragkou identifies precarity as a trope which, she argues, "carries the potential to reanimate our understanding of identity and the 'human' and our communal responsibility for the lives of Others against the backdrop of a spiralling uncertainty in the new millennium" (10). Although she focuses on British theatre, Fragkou maintains that, as a social ecology, precarity is not geographically bound (12). She aims to shift identity politics as it has been theorized under neoliberalism broadly, that is, as primarily based on individual traits such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. This "paradigm shift" from identity to precarity offers potential for new forms of ethical relations in an uncertain world (10).
The core of the book analyzes theatrical representations of precarity in a loosely chronological survey of the trope's appearance on the British stage from the 1990s to 2016. As a "sticky" affect in the Ahmedian sense (9), precarity arises across a number of theatrical works. The majority of Fragkou's examples are specific productions of scripted dramas, though she does address a performance installation and a devised performance. By tracing precarity through numerous theatrical examples, Fragkou demonstrates how the trope can either challenge the status quo or perpetuate the conditions that make it possible. The first chapter positions the theatre of the 1990s as a key forerunner of millennial theatre. She [End Page 157] revisits the political environment of Britain which gave rise to in-yer-face theatre, offering an alternate historiography of plays that staged "the good life" (17). The three case studies she examines in this chapter—Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking (1996), Phyllis Nagy's Never Land (1998), and Caryl Churchill's The Skriker (1994)—all uncover the precariousness of "happiness narratives" (46) that dominated both Britain and Europe in the 1990s. These three plays offer different dramaturgical structures that each show how intimacy can become a space for new relationalities forged through precarity.
The following four chapters each analyze a dimension of precarity represented on the British stage in the first fifteen years of the twenty-first century. Each chapter follows a similar structure: historical context, a theoretical frame, and a discussion of several theatrical case studies. Chapter 2 focuses on the affective and political work created by "the trope of the precarious child" (49). Fragkou maintains here that representations of children carry particular anxieties about family and serve as metaphors for general uncertainty in a world of economic instability, environmental devastation, and intercommunity violence. Her discussions of Mike Bartlett's My Child (2007), Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur (2005), and Mojisola Adebayo's Desert Boy (2010), among others, show how depictions of children can call into question ethics of responsibility, witnessing, and vulnerability.
In chapter 3, Fragkou illustrates ways that theatre can intervene in environmental precarity, especially through "imagination and affective engagement" (80). She points to several examples, including Complicité's The Encounter (2015), Caryl Churchill's Far Away (2000), and Alistair McDowall's X (2016), which reinvent theatrical representational strategies to reveal the slow violence of climate change. Fragkou shows how the affective work of the theatre can capture the immensity of ecological destruction by emphasizing interconnectedness. Closely related to environmental precarity are human rights, which Fragkou treats in chapter 4. She is particularly concerned with performances...