We enter the Courtyard Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and are led down a series of stairs until we find ourselves in a square brick room, painted black, and lit by a series of moving spotlights. There are four rows of fold out chairs set up in a square facing the stage and this could easily be a support group, or a meeting of alcoholics anonymous, except for the plastic cups filled with beer many of the audience members clasp in their hands. As we enter the room we are greeted by Chris Thorpe, the writer and performer of Confirmation, who asks us to take a seat. He is welcoming but already we sense just how direct and personal this experience is going to be.
Once we are all seated the lights pan to a microphone stand off stage. Chris picks it up and springs into a non-stop 80 minute monologue, pacing back and forth across the stage, explaining his back story and theories, and on occasion sitting face to face with an audience member, responding to them directly, and staring deep into their eyes. He inhabits multiple parts; at times he is a kindly lecturer, at others a vociferous racist. His concept is both simple and incredibly complex – what does it take to look through someone else’s eyes? Chris’s journey started with a book by Professor Jonathan Haidt about the difficulties of the political left and the political right to understand each other and to converse meaningfully and took this idea to its logical conclusion. As he confesses, if he was going to begin a dialogue with someone he disagrees with, it might as well be someone he disagrees with completely.
Enter Glen, as personified by the empty chair at the centre of the stage. Glen identifies himself as a national socialist, a Nazi in the old parlance (‘although let’s not get hung up on the Germany thing’ he implores Chris). Glen believes that supporting local business is key to building strong communities, he is raising money to save the local fire station, and he believes that the current education system is geared towards producing a generation of wage slaves rather than leaders. Glen also believes that one of the greatest threats to our country is multiculturalism. He believes the white race is naturally superior and that the dilution of races weakens our country.
The following 80 minutes is comprised of a series of conversations, both real and imagined, between Chris and Glen. It would be easy to dismiss Glen as stupid or pathological, but these are barriers to any true understanding. Instead Chris is unswerving in his attempt to understand both what Glen believes and what it feels like to hold these beliefs. And so he flies around the stage, at times Chris, at times Glen, and at times both, whatever sense of self he had lost in the sweeping lights and kinetic energy on stage.
It is compelling stuff, and the audience finds itself drawn into the conversation (sometimes directly), trying to distinguish where Chris, Glen, and their own beliefs lie. The notion of confirmation bias is introduced, the idea that as humans we are drawn to seek out information that confirms our own beliefs and that therefore ambiguous information will only convince us more strongly that we are correct. The show forces the audience to challenge their own beliefs, and asks whether the ultimate barrier to this kind of understanding is that our beliefs are so indelibly linked to ourselves that to understand another’s perspective in this way requires a loss of our own identity in the attempt. This fractured self is a striking element of the production as Chris roams around the stage, trying to explain and to understand, constantly haunted by the empty chair where Glen’s presence sits.
The show is intense, exhilarating, and deeply personal. Part lecture, part performance, the pace builds and builds to an incredibly charged finale as Glen and Chris sit facing each other, drinking tea at an ordinary table on an ordinary grey morning, a pamphlet resting between them entitled ‘Did 6 Million Really Die in the Holocaust?’