A 29-year old and her half-eaten bowl of Cheerios gaze up (in awe or trepidation – it’s ambiguous) at a messy iMovie project entitled ‘seethrough_vaultfestival’. Claire Gaydon’s deceptively sophisticated See-Through starts to playfully blur lines between the authentic and performative before you’ve even found your seat.
In this intelligent hour about millennial validation, rehearsal of the self and (Google) searching for a place in the world, a meta-theatricality stems from parallels drawn between creation of Gaydon’s YouTube channel – the piece’s focus – and the solo show we’re watching.
Laying her cards on the table upfront – as a ‘full-time actress who hasn’t worked that much yet’ – See-Through appears to enter performance-art territory (in as much as we believe the legitimacy of the videos posted and comments received). With some similarities to Bryony Kimmings’ Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, the piece documents Gaydon discovering how possible it is to generate income as a vlogger, create and establish an online ‘brand’ and what sort of content gets the most traction (spoiler alert: the confessional, ‘selling-your-soul’ stuff ranks pretty high).
It’s (smartly) implicit that this fringe show is as much of a project for Gaydon as her YouTube channel; they’re both examples of something she’s poured her heart, soul, attention, time and likely money into both to discover more about herself and receive the validation she’s all too in need of. Both vlogging and autobiographical performance share the necessity of having to reveal ‘sides to yourself’ that strangers don’t normally get to see. See-Through faces directly and proudly into what Elizabeth Cowie coined to be the ‘spectacle of actuality’: society’s somewhat primal desire to watch the ‘real’ in all its ugly, problematic shades. Gaydon astutely observes that this blurring – of what is coverage of an event and what is spectacle for our consumption – is something YouTube subscribers and autobiographical performance ticket-holders share.
Don’t get me wrong, much of See-Through is a hoot. The video sequences showing Gaydon ‘building her brand’ (designing a logo for her channel, trying to brief a friend on the sort of jingle she wants created) reek of those deliciously tragic Apprentice episodes, where logic segues into delirium. But darkness, in some form of another, cunningly pervades everything. We see a fly-on-the-wall clip of Claire whilst recording her jingle, for example, repeating her name over and over to get the intonation ‘correct’. The moment is simultaneously amusing and chilling – a sort of aural equivalent of the sentiment in Sylvia Plath’s Mirror. Gaydon sniggers that her name doesn’t even sound like her name anymore because she’s said it so many times – but there’s a hidden, profoundly tragic sense of uncertainty behind the comment: a feeling many share about a complete loss or confusion or conflation of identity. A muted shout for help about what any of us are really doing, or trying to kid ourselves we ‘are’ or ‘aren’t’. Much of the writing is really, unostentatiously, ace.
Also impressive is how fluidly Gaydon, and associate directors Jaz Woodcock-Stewart & Grace Gibson, layer meta-theatre into every second of proceedings – so ‘authenticity’ and its alternatives remain eternally top of mind. You assume – for example – the photoshoot we see video clips from (framed as one of her YouTube brand-building activities) was actually for the show publicity. SMART. There’s another superb moment when Claire switches her laptop over to webcam mode to record her ‘very first YouTube video’ in front of us. If you’re eagle-eyed, you’ll notice the little thumbnails at the bottom of the Photo Booth window: evidence of all the times (previous shows) where she’s recorded that same monologue in front of another audience. A nod to the virtual graveyard of defunct content that essentially defines YouTube, and the (literally) millions of failed pursuits for a piece of the pie that Zoella and Jake Paul are so ravenously treating themselves to.
The perceptible ‘falsity’ to much of See-Through is also insightful, compelling and I’d imagine entirely intentional. Claire’s dialogue with the graphic designer whilst they finalise her cover pic feels ‘performed’ (or at least like they’ve previously agreed off-camera on the ‘milestones’ they’ll hit during the dialogue – as is the mechanic of Love Island conversations). And if you look closely whilst Gaydon types Google queries into her onstage laptop, you realise she isn’t actually touching the keys and what you’re watching is a pre-recorded video. Perhaps this was just a logistical consideration; I wouldn’t be surprised if the WiFi in that leaky railway tunnel wasn’t that great. But it’s also super effective – an oh-so-subtle nod to the fact that even the most ‘innocent’ content we believe we’re watching is actually highly illusory and loaded with trickery, like the majority of the videos which YouTube likes to romantically suggest ‘just went viral’ due to the content’s ‘quality’ alone. As has been exposed with Justin Bieber’s emergence on the platform for example, often there’s way more of a hidden machine and complexities behind their success than meets the eye.
A less subtle but altogether still effective staging decision is Gaydon not facing or eyeing the audience without a screen in the way (until the cathartic epilogue, anyway). She relays herself to us via videos and live-streams via her laptop and iPhone cams – and the most effective moment is when she does so at an angle which catches the audience in the background. You catch yourself ‘performing’ a version of yourself as soon as you realise you’re on the screen – and even when you’re only part of the backdrop of a fake YouTube video. You alter your face, your better your posture, you sort of hate yourself for doing so, but it’s a clever device. None of us are immune to – or above – the conditioning that See-Through is essentially deconstructing. For the minute we see ourselves reflecting (and particularly when we’re aware that others can see it to), manipulating what we can about ourselves to be ‘presentable’ has become as much a reflex for us as tearing our hands away from a hot surface.
I’m aware I’ve abstained from talking about See-Through‘s climacteric: a no-nonsense – and contrary to what comes before it, I assume entirely truthful – monologue about the circumstances in which Gaydon ‘lost her religion’. The speech (still delivered as a YouTube ‘record’, but one she admits afterwards to deleting soon after posting) is dense and personal and in brash juxtaposition with the content that precedes it. You can definitely anticipate a monologue of its type coming – but when it arrives, it’s perhaps the one moment where the intended effect felt unclear to me.
Perhaps my experience was tinged by either the air vent or passing train that started making a colossal amount of noise in the tunnel shortly after the speech started on the night I was in attendance. But I guess I’ll just admit I found the unintentional ‘sound design’ surprisingly welcome. I appreciate the content is not meant to be palatable but the atmospheric white-noise of the train made it easier for me to process, it helped punctuate but also contain the story – and, perhaps this is an awful thing for me to admit but here I go – it also helped me stay focused. Unless the underlying message is we’re becoming desensitised to these online cries for help, the tone dipped a little too suddenly for me and it required a bit of effort to ‘stay with Claire’ throughout what was quite a lengthy and confrontational section.
See-Through shines, though, because in stark contrast to its topic’s fickle and mindless reputation – the piece is anything but. It admirably steers away from the all-too-easy conclusion that successful YouTubers are just ‘pretty’ or ‘in the right place at the right time’ – doing justice to the actual graft involved in the profession, and suggesting these people aren’t given the attention and respect they deserve for growing and maintaining a (frankly often irrational and volatile) fanbase. But it’s also about something far more universal than YouTube – just as Lands was about any specific illness or condition that the trampoline metaphor may allude to. About the lengths we’ll go for affirmation, the ways technology have perhaps polluted our concept or mere definition of that word – and about how, by pursuing what may well be little more than a fantasy, we may well be missing opportunities for genuine connection.