The Feeling of Big Guns

When we watch Nina Segal’s brilliant script for Big Guns, realised on The Yard stage by Dan Hutton and his team, the main thing that gets us is a feeling. It’s a feeling that feels pretty essential to modern life, but we’re not sure people talk about it that much. Maybe we don’t know how to. How could we describe it?

How about this. You’re stuck, awake from a cocktail of caffeine and anxiety at 2am on a Tuesday, face lit by the blue-grey glare of a computer screen, scrolling through the annals of the internet – not the dark web or anything, just the ordinary internet, but that’s bad enough. Looking. Watching.  Seeing – all too much. Seeing the images of death and cellulite and terrorist attacks and creampies and environmental collapse and vegan brownies which are anywhere and everywhere, which fill you with a kind of sick dread and flood your dreams.

And each morning, eyes stung by the light that pours into your bedroom, do you also think – why did I look at all that shit last night? That’s not normal. Not natural. I already know that civil war is bloody. I already know that girl from school has lost 4 stone on the paleo diet. I already know how much there is in the world to be afraid of, and angry about, and paralysed by. Today, I’ll embrace the light, get on with work, turn over a new leaf, stop eating refined sugar. But maybe the feeling follows you around. Maybe your train stops for too long between Liverpool Street and Bank, and, as the announcer mentions an ‘incident’, your eyes meet a stranger’s and you mutually acknowledge: yes, today we’ll be harmed here, hurt here, die here, in this packed central line hell hole, and I guess that’s what I always suspected somehow. Or maybe you pass two young men on the canal at twilight and think to yourself: yes, these men will probably take my expensive things, hold me at knifepoint, hold me down, stamp on my face. Just as I somehow always thought would happen. That violence that I see on screens, that torments my city, that I dream of –  it’s here. It’s everywhere.

And what does it feel like, to be in that moment just before the imagined-unimaginable happens? That moment Big Guns creates and conveys.  Your heart races, you feel sick, your palms sweat. You want to know what will happen and at the same time you fear it coming. Your limbs weaken, your head lightens. Maybe it sometimes feels good, even. To feel this alive. Anything but bored and numb. Maybe we almost want these terrible acts to happen. Or to nearly happen. Or happen to someone who isn’t us. Sometimes there is a strange and awful relief when these things happen – as we knew they would – and we were ok, this time at least.

Big Guns is a show about this feeling. And about this sometimes exceptionally dark world we’ve found ourselves in. Two people, who could be us, tell us stories about violence. They consume these stories, and spit them back out at us. And sometimes it’s bitterly funny. Other times it’s terrifyingly moving. Throughout the show, it makes our heart pound and our mind race. We feel scared. Excited.

But the show nudges us to be wary of those feelings – to be wary of the place where fear and desire merge into one. Because Big Guns looks at where these feelings have got us. It looks at all the things we watch, consume, condone, do.

Rosie Elnile’s Design Inspiration for Big Guns

Dan   – (director of Big Guns) – and I wanted to create a set that felt playful and risky. We both felt that the text had a claustrophobic quality and that the two characters (named only One and Two) should be trapped, with their movement being restricted in some way.


I looked at images of game shows where contestants put themselves in real, physical danger in order to get a prize – be that money or a moment on telly. An image of contestants looking very unstable on beams that retracted in to a wall felt particularly horrific and therefore relevant to this show, as did stills from a Japanese game show called Solitary  where people were kept in solitary confinement in candy coloured rooms.

The set we have made is not a direct replica of any of these TV shows but we hope it has something of the risk and excitement of these images.


3 (Bruce Nauman)

Nina Segal on Big Guns & Violence

Big Guns is, at its core, a play about violence: the different shapes it takes and the different ways in which we might encounter it. The forms we find it in and the ways we let it in.

This question of how we might let darkness – violence, threat, unspecified malevolence – in, is at the heart of countless horror films: the front door unlocked to the stranger in the middle of the night, the dusty book thoughtlessly opened in the abandoned library at night. The spirit released – set free and now forever (or at least until the end of the movie) uncontained. We watch horror films and we shout at the screen: don’t turn that key, don’t say those words, don’t let them in – how can it be that you can’t see the depth of what will be unleashed. But violence takes many forms – the real, the fictional, the terrifyingly in-between – and we invite it in across our threshold daily.

In making this work, Dan and I sought to explore the kinds of horror that we – in the West, in our locked homes and our supposedly safe spaces – encounter and the many ways that we might let it in. Not always under cover of darkness in the middle of the night, but sometimes in broad daylight – welcomed in, unthinkingly or absolutely purposefully. Violence as something slippery, something that permeates – something that might have always been here, that enters perhaps without us even realising it and certainly not accompanied by the cinematic score and dramatically trembling water glass that warns you danger is drawing close.

There’s the violence we recognise immediately from the word – the automatic images of blood and gore, broken noses and crushed fingers. The violence we think of as real, even as the bulk of us admit our imagination of it is inextricable from the fictional representations we’ve received of it. But there are other kinds of violence that lurk beneath – more insidious and less easily defined. Easier to let in. This violence can take the form of imagery – the glorified, fictionalised and almost constant violence that pervades our screens and our imaginations. It can be structural – the economic conditions that we didn’t choose but cannot, it seems, elect to live outside. The violence implicit in human relationships – the power to hurt, the constant shifting of control, the tenuous balance we work hard to all believe is effortless. We tried, in making this work, to categorise these forms of violence – the real, the fictional, the mediated. But these seemingly obvious boundaries too often prove harder to maintain.

Say a violent act, an act of real violence, takes place – a bombing, a shooting, an attack. The details don’t matter, even though you’ll almost certainly immediately imagine them. And even though the reality, the effect, the human cost of that event is undeniable, it still becomes complicated, made complex through other modes of violence. The speed of the news cycle becomes at times a form of violence itself – the need to force immediate narrative onto a complex event, the unavoidable politicising, the inevitable moulding towards individual aims or agendas. Too often we see the ultimate rebranding of real horror into slogan, into soundbite – into commemorative souvenir, even. The violence of the real becomes compounded by the violence of mediation, of dissection, of capitalism, of fiction.

Is it possible to categorise all the forms of violence that we encounter?   One image from the recent news cycle comes to mind. A young woman in a t-shirt bearing the slogan LOL is captured on CCTV, holding a piece of material over the mouth and nose of a middle-aged man in a busy international airport. We learn from news reports that the material contains a powerful nerve agent and the man, Kim Jong-nam, is pronounced dead on the way to the hospital.

The image of the woman is disseminated on the news and almost simultaneously on social media. There is shock – at the violence, at the immediate global repercussions – but also at the particular image of the perpetrator. The woman’s t-shirt – seemingly mass-produced, assumedly created by unseen hands in a rarely imagined factory – speaks to a violence of globalisation, of the desire for cheap goods[1]; and invites the audience, the viewer, to Laugh Out Loud. Here is a violence of cheap laughs, the particular violence of entertainment in an internet age in which the ultimate end point of almost everything is often, it seems, to laugh out loud. She appears young and, surprisingly to many, conventionally attractive. There’s a violence here too – the immediacy and instinctiveness with which the female appearance is appraised for levels of attractiveness. Let’s not forget the violence of surveillance – the subtle violence of being constantly watched by unseen eyes in public places that allows this image to even be captured in the original instance. Reports following the event are contradictory, unclear, but there are unverified references to a reality TV show that the woman may have believed she was appearing on, taking part in – a prank show for a world in which spraying men in the face unexpectedly with liquid has been deemed believable as entertainment[2]. The kind of misunderstanding that might be funny if a man were not dead. The kind of misunderstanding that remains somehow still funny – funny-strange if not outwardly or publicly funny-haha – even though he is. Again, a kind of violence that cannot be easily categorised as absolutely real or absolutely fictional.

There’s real violence in this moment – a real effect and a man is dead.   But there are other forms of violence at play – of economics, of entertainment, of global politics, gender politics, of bias, of assumption, of increasingly blurred lines between real life and fiction. Violence isn’t as straightforward as an unexpected knock at the door in the middle of the night, of an identifiable threat and an easy way to keep it out. We engage in violence, let it in, all the time, in forms we may not even recognise.

Big Guns is about violence[3]. But it’s really not ever that simple.

[1] Here is a further form of violence, in my automatic assumption that her t-shirt is cheap.

[2] Here again, a form of violence, in my allowing you to assume that I might not watch these types of TV shows, that I might be above this kind of ‘entertainment’, when in fact, like many of us, I bloody love watching people traverse huge squirming pits of snakes on Fort Boyard.

[3] The violence too – the trickiest, most slippery kind of violence at this stage – of even discussing violence, of assuming that I am in any position at all to discuss violence, from a position of relatively inarguable shelter, of safety, of privilege, of fiction, of imagination (which, I know, isn’t disappeared or neutralised just because I reference it). Violence, real violence, doesn’t have footnotes, does it?