Cristina in the Cupboard (subtlenuance) runs at the Tap Gallery from November 6 – 17 2013. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist.
I found Cristina in the Cupboard both deeply fascinating and profoundly troubling. For the eighty five minutes of the show, I found myself mesmerised (although I should point out that this was not the experience of my theatre date, who told me afterwards she found some parts of the show very dull). However, it wasn’t mesmerising in an immersive sense. The show raised questions for me, structural and societal questions, which I don’t think it ever resolved. It made me think, and think deeply, and in the case of this particular show, I think this is potentially both good and bad.
I should point out that while Cristina in the Cupboard belongs to a kind of epic genre – it is in many ways a quest narrative, a journey to and through the underworld – it is also a small story. It is the story of one single protagonist, Cristina (Sylvia Keays), who has locked herself away in a cupboard (or is it?). Her family and friends implore her to come out, both as themselves and as characters in her own mind, but Cristina will not or cannot emerge, not until she has found the answers that she seeks.
But saying this – noting that this is a small story – there was a lot I found troubling about Cristina in the Cupboard on a political level. If the show had addressed these issues, it might have been fascinating, but to me, it didn’t seem to recognise they existed.
The political problems I had with this show revolve around gender (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that I am a feminist academic). Cristina, isolating herself from the world, both compares herself and is compared to world-renouncing sages, sannyasin figures: Jesus, Buddha, Mahavira, etc. This is fine, and I don’t have a problem with it at all, but when we’re considering questions of women and confined spaces, there is another dominant literary archetype that we cannot escape, even if we want to: the mad woman in the attic. Of course, this mad woman is confined by someone else, and Cristina has confined herself, but this is still an important reference point. Even if we think of women who renounced the world in the manner of the sannyasin, an example that immediately comes to mind is the figure of the nun bricked up in a wall, a practice constructed as a kind of divine religious madness. When thinking of women and confined spaces, we must consider that removal from society happens because women have been acting in a socially inappropriate, often anarchic way, even when they are removing themselves from society. There is a profound politics around the relationship between women and enclosed spaces.
Cristina does not think of herself as crazy, although many other characters do: her father in particular uses the word as a weapon against her, and several characters suggest bringing in a mental health professional. Cristina sees herself as a sannyasin, but no one else is prepared to see her in this way. Instead, she is a crazy woman to be dealt with (which brings us back to the mad woman in the attic). This gives us an interesting insight into gendered modes of isolation, particularly when we consider why Cristina has shut herself away from the world and why she comes out. (I won’t spoil it, but it’s quite a personal emotional reason.) Women are not given social permission to go into the desert for forty days and forty nights. They may not sit under the bodhi tree and seek enlightenment. Instead, women are conditioned to deal with their problems not through isolation, but through communication and socialisation. They are not permitted these emotionally inspired vision quests: they must feel together, as a group, and they must support other members of the group who are feeling too, whether male or female.
“Would Cristina have been treated in the same way if she were a man?” my theatre date and I discussed afterwards. While it’s hard to come up with a conclusive answer, it’s hard to believe that she would have. Men are allowed these moments of solitude in their small dark spaces, their man-caves. It is an acceptable masculine mode of feeling. I felt like a lot of the show put on Cristina in this show to emerge from the cupboard was deeply gendered, and this is never, ever addressed. The ending affirms the normative modes of feminine feeling. This in and of itself is not necessarily problematic, but it made me feel like that although Cristina might have achieved some kind of enlightenment in the cupboard, she wasn’t allowed to be a figure like Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, who considered renouncing the world, was convinced not to by Krishna, and had a new and more virtuous way of living revealed to him. Instead, it was kind of like she went to Oz: while she went on a journey and learned some important things, she worked out that home was where she wanted to be all along. There was potential for some really interesting political commentary here, and I feel like these undertones were ignored almost totally: like the show didn’t even realise its own implications.
I also had a big problem with the way female friendship was portrayed in the show as innately bitchy and competitive. If we consider that “feeling together” is the accepted mode of feminine feeling, I wasn’t surprised Cristina retreated into the cupboard if her friends were so terrible. It’s hard to tell how much of this was her perspective and how much was reflective of the friends’ actual relationship, but either way, I found it quite problematic and a very shallow look at the complexities of female friendship.
All this said, there is a lot to like in Cristina in the Cupboard. Like I said earlier, I could not look away. There are parts which are lyrically exquisite and parts which are wonderfully moving, and I’m positive I am reading way too much into it and expecting way too much from it. But at the same time, there is no escaping the political in a show like this, and I feel that on the whole, the thing I will remember most about this show is the missed opportunities.