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Lyn Gardner continues to be instinctively right, it seems to me, in her latest guardian blog about small-scale shows, even if I’m not sure she commits fully to her argument.

I also saw Internal at BAC during Burst – it’s a piece for five audience (and five performers) that begins with parallel one-on-ones before opening out into a circle of ten. It certainly raises the stakes for the audience. When I came out of the performance I was thrilled and adrenalised.

Lyn was savvy enough to lie to the Belgians. I foolishly felt for them and opened up, assuming that the success of the show would depend on our genuine and honest participation. More fool me, it seems. By halfway through, it’s clear that your partner-performerTrust Betrayed isn’t engaging equally with the audience member. They’re playing a part, revealing nothing – and then they began to hold the information I’d given over me, releasing some of it as entertainment for the other audience members. Betrayal. The thrill of the show, I realised later, was fear and a bit of self-disgust. I was in jeopardy.

It seems to me that a successful intimate performance is about trust – and liberating the audience member to feel supported enough to express themselves and behave unselfconsciously. Performers forget how difficult and exposing this is for normal people. The Ontroerend Goed performers seemed to enjoy betraying this trust. Now, you could argue that they provoked a strong response, and that by conjuring one, they had done more than Fat Pig or Marguerite are likely to manage. But I found it reminiscent of those shabby, cowardly reality TV/comedy programmes where unsuspecting members of the public are ridiculed by Dom Joly or Marc Wootton. The performers, prepared and rehearsed, run no personal risk. The victims have no chance – they’re damned if they believe. It’s a culture that rewards deceit and defensiveness, and punishes openness and trust. And it doesn’t even do what an impactful stage performance does, where an actor’s emotional nakedness and commitment in enacting a fiction can humble an audience, sometimes into their own tears. Lots of intimate shows seem to be cooked up by theatre-makers who are focused only on making the experience more intense for an audience. I didn’t have the chance to experience Ontroerend Goed’s (more lauded) one-person show The Smile Off Your Face - it sounds like it handled the trust relationship more sensitively. But there’s more to experience than intensity.

Let me know if you’ve been to any intimate performances that allowed you to feel safe and able to respond openly.

Meanwhile I was lucky enough to catch one of the performances of the Red Ladies at the ICA, and it seemed to me again that Suzy Willson is among our most under-rated and consistently extraordinary theatre-makers. Flashier, more marketing-minded companies like Punchdrunk and Shunt pick up the coverage, but her work with composer Paul Clark as the Clod Ensemble is both more interesting and more consistent. She’s understated and it’s often a long time between shows – but what shows. The thrillingly simple and minimal Silver Swan up in Edinburgh a few years ago. And the development of Red Ladies over the last couple of years has been about the only serious contribution to a debate people sometimes try to have about Public Theatre. There was an event about this at the Tricycle a few years back, but the Red Room railroaded it into being about political theatre, which is a very different (and less amazing) thing. I’m constantly seeing political theatre, and it’s just the same as (supposedly) non-political theatre: someone banging on about their point of view and why it’s right. Public theatre is something quite different and again, like the successful intimate theatre, it’s respect for the consideration of the audience that makes it work. The Red Ladies work excitingly and provocatively as a street theatre intervention, and in the theatre show they unfold layer after layer of meaning, making a seamless transition between theatre, movement and music. Willson’s talking about protest, about group identities, and about women, and she’s a wonderfully assured and witty guide. The non-narrative structure of Red Ladies – it’s structured like a piece of music – allows the audience to wander around the themes. the beautifully individualised chorus movement makes sure you never need to be bored. And whenever it threatens to veersign reading \'Truth is Free\' into taking itself too seriously, there’s a moment of beauty, droll self-knowledge or fierce energy to shift your preconceptions. As Lady 3 says at the beginning: “Whatever you think we are.. We’re not that.” It seems to me to be totally public. Everything about it celebrates the individual in the crowd – both as herself and as someone in a society. It champions some specific values, sure enough, but it explicitly articulates those values by showing you variations (and sometimes abstentions) from them. Consensual, complex, grown-up politics, not soapbox posturing. What’s inconceivable is that it does 3 performances on wet spring weekdays. Is that all the appetite our city has for this kind of work?

Breath bated to see if the media decide to shit on or pay attention to Chris Goode‘s experiments at the Gate… I’m going later in the run but I guess it could go either way. Maybe we’ll get one of Billington’s two-column non-reviews explaining what he thinks is the right way to have directed it.

Incidentally, I noticed that Lyn’s piece about intimate shows received almost no comments (I’m sure this will have fewer). I assume that’s because these tiny shows are self-evidently peripheral to the real theatre that everyone sees – and who cares if a few tossers in London see some pretentious art shows? This may be true (and it’s certainly the case that lots of emerging ‘artists’ make work for a disappointingly homogeneous audience) but I hope the relation to the Red Ladies (and onwards perhaps) suggests how the aesthetic values people pioneer in these experiments will underpin all their subsequent work. If you start out despising the audience, what hope have you got when you’re generating product?

What are we to do? It’s a golden age of London theatre. Is it? Sometimes I walk in and out of shows and am just knocked sideways by how slick and competent everything is. When it comes to product, we have got some top people and the public are lapping it up. And honestly, it doesn’t seem that a few months can go by without something really, genuinely good being on somewhere within the London postal area. Has it always been like this? Did I miss it before? Doesn’t it feel like the designs are more interesting, the writers and directors interested in difficult questions, probing the possibilities? the actors.. well, the actors are a bit variable. Perhaps the casting directors didn’t get the memo. But I do feel like it’s a healthy time

And yet, and yet.. Is it fuck. Aren’t we wallowing in self-congratulatory, unambitious mediocrity?

What could have been more depressing than the Young Vic’s Prayer for My Daughter?Bent Coppers Not least for the Vic itself, who presumably set out to pack the seats with hip young theatregoers who like the 70s, like sleazy cop drama, like retro, like Americana (if not America, necessarily), and ended up with a proper dud on their hands. Just a sloppily written, clumsily plotted feast of the predictable and obvious, a handsome but interest- and ideas-free production of a play-by-numbers, Prayer… didn’t seem to have any ambition at all. At least The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each other had some – but how it squandered it on surely the most misconceived production of this script ever. How many people walked onto that stage in the NT’s lengthy rendition? I don’t think I believed in more than about three of them. The rest were sloppy physical caricatures, stagy comic turns no different from some sort of ultra-Fast Show. This vision of the play as a sort of surreal music-hall variety seemed confirmed by the direction of Jason Thorpe’s sneering clown – an indulgent routine that shared nothing with anyone. Thousands of people watching, and an opportunity firmly missed.

And yet.. part of me wants to be pleased that the Lyttelton audience see so much Katie Mitchell (some of it really good) and then got followed up with a modern wordless European classic. It’s just… What if you saw Attempts and found it a bit limited, and you saw Hour and found that it missed the point.. God, you’d be running for the amiable safety of your Nick Hytner Much Ado or Major Babs, wouldn’t you? And something seems to happen to these theoretically risky productions in the big houses – as if some damage limitation exercise has been wrought, they come out with the rough edges all chamfered clean. Any honesty and openness of their presentation has disappeared.

Smiles Mean Sales

I don’t think we’d mind them partially failing, if only they didn’t sit there looking so smug as if they thought they’d succeeded. I’m sure it’s to do with our new sales-friendly arts culture; in this age of competition and free market, none of the venues are allowed to admit that any of their shows have been anything less than a success – it’s not just looking for positives, it’s presenting an inane grin to the public, ACE and sponsors. Which is fine if you think the public are morons to be misled by your smile (as the ACE and sponsors will be). But if you give them any credit at all, you just look like you don’t know what you’re doing.

It’s consistently not good enough. Surely. I still want to applaud people for stepping in the right direction. And I know how hard it can be to get it right – goodness knows I don’t manage. So it’s thrilling to have seen, for example, the recent double at the Gate – I Am Falling and Press. Not for what they were as much as for what they tried to be – a really bold reinvention of the venue’s policy. I thought Falling was a lovely little piece of work – it was short, yes, but you could also say it didn’t outstay its welcome – and it unaffectedly did find a common ground between the open artifice of dance and the deliberately apparent artlessness of dialogue. Press was much less overwhelming even though it was technically a more extraordinary performance. I didn’t see any great dramatic coherence to the composition – and the last section with the video camera felt thrown in as a free gift – this was the much less interesting of the two pieces, much more like the circus exhibitionism of the most self-regarding dance.

random up at the Court is the Important Production of the month. But although the subject is closer to home, it’s miles from the urgent frisson you got from debbie tucker green’s previous Sacha Wares collaboration, generations. Nadine Marshall gives a brilliant performance, turning repeatedly on a sixpence to offer a beautifully observed set of roles, and no one puts a foot wrong – it’s tasteful, thoughtful and honest. So why did I nod off a few times? random was so fully inside my expectations of a one-woman dtg show about the pointless death of a teenager (as the publicity made it clear it would be) that it simply couldn’t grab hold. Seven rows behind me a young school group of mainly black kids whooped whenever they recognised a bit of characterisation or a turn of phrase, but they didn’t seem impressed by the narrative either. My feeling is that perhaps the brief (self-imposed or not, I’ve no idea) was too restrictive for dtg to be able to think about how she might hook the audience. This didn’t cement her reputation. She is the most unconventional and poetic playwright of her generation, certainly, but here for a moment the anti-capitalisation started to seem like an affectation.

Prescription may be our greatest enemy – especially when our arts overlords are so keen on good planning and management. Get me a knife-crime play. You can’t just prescribe something and then create it. On a download from his site, Chris Goode does some talking (densely of course – don’t you ever read it back and try to make it easier, Chris?) about ‘liminality’ and his aspirations for what theatre should aim to be. He talks about loads more than this. But of course, like a million writers and directors before him, he wants the event to resonate outside the rooms and the hours it takes place in. But it’s one thing to say”I want this to resonate” and another to actually sit down and make the work. All we can ask for is care and attention to what resonates instead of what looks cool. StampsIt doesn’t matter if your source material is Chekhov, a new play or a performance devised from a book of postage stamps – you’re just as likely to make something conventional. A culture of wanting to plan what impact your production is going to have combines badly with a culture of asking people to deliver things in the vein of the their previous work. Artists (and the visual artists do us no favours here) are expected to have a schtick nowand to plough their proven furrow. Shunt’s David Rosenberg is about to open his project at the Lyric, Contains Violence - I’m terrified that it’s just going to be a tired old set of noirish/pulp fiction/voyeuristic cliches with some aggressive ‘attitude’ and an air of the defiantly amateurish. Clips from Shunt shows you might have seen, taken across the road and watched through the windows. We used to toddle down to Shunt cabarets to be surprised (and, be fair, quite frequently disappointed), but never bored. I really hope Rosenberg has kept hold of his ability to pull the rug from under what you’re expecting. Goodness knows all the advice he’s been hearing will have been about providing a satisfying ending.

So we’re surrounded by ‘good’ pieces of theatre – target-hitting, slick,Excellence well-produced and performed work: like in what is undeniably an important production of random, not least because the school group had a good time. But the ‘good’ness can really stifle what might really be exciting in it. The Arts Council are scratching their collective heads about what excellence might be; it isn’t this. I’d prefer a time when companies didn’t have to lie to you about how good their work is, so they can have actual dialogue about how good they want it to be – and what they dream of it being.

why oh why

What do people go to the theatre for? I lay awake at night considering much more trivial issues, but that is kind of question that I allow to prevent me from doing productive work.

I mean there’s all sorts of things – we like a bit of novelty, a bit of heart-swelling get in theresong, a jaw-dropping spectacle and whatnot, but what is this fundamental thing that draws an audience in – you can see them doing it despite themselves. They’ll tell you it’s narrative – but what do they know? Only believe what you see with you own eyes. The narrative is a side-effect of something else. Isn’t it that we have natural curiosity, out of self-preservation, and ambition (and evolutionary necessity if you like it like that), to understand how other people see the world? It’s part of our social development. And you can see it by watching real people, or you can have it served up in a convenient (well, usually) package by some people you’ve paid (through the tax system, and by ticket) to observe and report for you in a contrived vehicle, that will put that perosnb through strain and strife (or examine something much subtler in detail). So we get these plays in which we can understand why people do what they do. Or even if we don’t understand, play out possible consequences. And maybe we feel a tiny bit safer or more knowledgeable.
We’ve also found that we can produce mind-spinning, eye-brimming, mobile, pulsating art in the same environment. Why we don’t do both more often is known only to the wisest, and possibly some of the most cowardly.
I went to see Hoipolloi’s Floating at the Pit, which wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping it would be, but still worth a much belated recommendation – it asks some great questions and then plays in the sandpit for a while, very pleasurably, without really returning to them. I believe they’re doing more in the same vein, which may be good news. It’s an affectionate satire on ridiculous and impenetrable performance artists making hopefully profound experimental theatre – and they succeed in making it both funny and relatively successful experimental theatre. It’s not quite profound yet, but I think they want that. They did an extended joke about ‘microtheatre’ which tried to communicate an experience to the audience through fragmentary sensations. Which seems to me what great writers,great theatre makers of all sorts, do in words and through implication.

I did also see the universally praised Saint Joan – which is nearly as good as you might ask a production of St Joan in the Olivier to be. It’s pretty long and it’s not a totally flawless ensemble, but Marianne Elliott keeps things going with some nice movement, song and big symbolic gesture. It’s a confirmation that she’s very very tasteful in her selection of content – a terrific judge of how much is enough, and perhaps that the theatre of symbols is on its way back – it’s got big-time appeal to a big audience here.

Our Joan I was a bit disappointed, though, that this, and the production in Bath of Pygmalion (which I haven’t seen – what travelcard zone is that in?), were seized on by Shaw champions as evidence that he’s neglected. I’m only me, but from what I saw and what I’ve read of him he seems to be as successful as a playwright can be who has no real talent or instinct for writing plays. The plays are explicitly, deliberately and insistently dialectical. They mainly seem to be interested in presenting a man having an argument with himself (and fitting in his drollest thoughts on the subject), rather than being any sort of meaningful engagement with the mysteries of life. I was pleased that the characterisations in Joan weren’t as schematic as I’d expected – frequently the chap said exactly the opposite thing to what you expected – but I never felt that this was because they thought it, I always thought – oh, that’s clever, Mr. Shaw. Just like he wanted me to.
I mean you’re welcome to put on Shaw plays if you like that sort of thing, but don’t go pretending that he’s not banging on or that he’s a breath of fresh air. Saint Joan has a production that is working incredibly hard, and, frankly, against the text, to keep some fire in it – to show that the windy rhetoric is being generated by passionate lungs rather than by a narcissistic pen. Well done for making Shaw work for us – not well done Shaw. A victory for the director’s theatre…?

And to return to the discussion of the characters of reviewers, I had the rare pleasure of picking up a copy of the Sunday Times and looking at the St Joan review – I think it might be the first time I’d given a thought to a man called Christopher Hart, who seems to have a brilliant technique of targeting his imagined reader – writing for the man who doesn’t know what he doesn’t like. Hart wades out bravely into the stalls, wearing his ignorance pulled right down over his eyes, in case he accidentally finds himself thinking about what’s in front of him. It’s a heroic and touching sight: ideal reading for the theatre-goer who doesn’t really want to go and doesn’t want anything too interesting when they do.

I had a little flippant nibble over on encore about the ‘Hytner vs critics’ debate that is exercising folk. I think that if theatre directors are willing to stick their heads above the parapet then those of us who are anonymous owe it to them to back them up bygloves are off exercising significantly less courage. Hytner has had lashings, massages, bouquets and backlashes for his own productions from all over since his tenure started, and it’s been pretty clear that they’ve been largely political statements on the part of the critics (who would like to be in favour of or against trends like Tom Hardy, celebrity casting, £10 ticket deals, revivals, new plays or whatever he’s doing) and rarely much to do with what the experience is actually like (frequently poor in my experience, but hats off to the man for his programming). This has certainly extended to productions by other directors at the NT – there have been plenty of reviews aimed at ‘Hytner’s NT’ rather than involving themselves with the specific production.

shadow of a boySusannah Clapp, not someone whose reviews I set my compass by, has written pretty well on this here in the Observer. She thinks the battlefield is to do with Billington and Spencer being left behind by the developing language of our theatre-makers. It’s surely true that stodgy writing, tedious, uninspiring characterisation and lengthy rhetoric is more tolerated by our literary-trained critics than is the odd flash of indulgent spectacle (that kneehigh, de la guarda or frantic assembly might be prone to). I’m interested in who the critics think they are and what they think they’re for. Obviously de Jongh writes with his obituary in mind, hoping to be remembered as the executioner of Shaftesbury Ave. Lyn Gardner writes as the champion of the promising newcomers – she has an amazing (and utterly excellent) capacity to put more and more faith in more and more youngsters, sending them on with glowing notices to the altar where Spencer, Billington and Nightingale will dismiss them as not yet fully formed (and send their overextended producers reaching for the overdraft facility).

And the critics have their own narrative presumably – waiting for productions to live up to the superb one in their head; or hoping to chart a moment of development; or standing guard over the old traditions and values. Someone pointed out that the critics, like your dad with his record collection, are stuck in their generation’s idea of what good theatre is – what they loved when they were 13 or 16 or 21 or whenever they fell in love with it. It’s true, I suppose, and they’d be right to say the same about the practitioners. Is it just me or do both Tom Morris and David Farr keep getting comments about how their work resembles the early-80s theatre-in-education and physical work that may very well have inspired them? Not much wrong with that either – genuine influence is how ideas germinate.

I’m loath to come down on Spencer for being unreconstructed in his attitude to physical theatre (if he is – I don’t read him much) – that’s his perspective and regular readers will know it. He’d be doing his job well if he acknowledged that it wasn’t his cup of tea and he may not be reviewing it well for those who like it. Sometimes critics do this but not nearly enough. I mean he shouldn’t be pretending to like things if he doesn’t. He should just be prepared to accept he’s unable to judge them on their own terms. The debate shouldn’t be about the age of the critics, nor the specifics of their gender bias. It should be about them being open about their bias. “I’m not a fan of Nick Hytner’s NT repertoire but I really liked this production of xxxxxx”, perhaps we should read. They can still build their personality-cults.

The other side of the debate is about the democratisation of criticism – Billington’s response has a rather pompous line about the independence of his voice, as if he was artistically inviolate. I rather liked the Guardian’s scheme of inviting butchers to see plays about butchers and so on – they are always a good read. the london paper and the independent sometimes do ‘you do the reviews’ slots which usually seem to have mates of the production raving about something – it seems very open to abuse. So I suppose the reviewing bloggers, with their own personalities (like West End Whingers), have a real role to play here. Especially if the theatre marketing departments and (perhaps?) the critics themselves start to take them seriously. The best reviewers are the ones about whom you know a bit more, so you can react to their opinions.

chop chop

So, I’m one of the people who isn’t getting their grants for the arts money because of this cut.

It’s possible of course, given the mysterious round-table meetings that characterise the GFA process (“sorry, it was a busy week this time, so regardless of the quality of your application, tough shit”) that I wouldn’t have got it anyway, but let’s, having read the tea-leaves, assume that I was, and fell into the unfortunate 35% abruptly dropped without a parachute.

I can tell you that this has not made me work harder to create something I really care about, as the commentators who bizarrely think our arts were overfunded seem to suggest. In fact it has made me terrified and anxious about a project that previously seemed straightforward to manage. It’s meant that more hours are going into desperate fundraising than into working on making the art istelf. It means all sorts of shabby stalling and timewasting, fobbing off, concealing budgets, making vague promises, crossing fingers, cashflow panics and hoping things will come together. It means the work will suffer, my sleep will suffer, and the people I’m working with will get less out of me. The show will be fine, but there will be a sense of trepidation about its execution that I pray doesn’t communicate all the way down the line to the audience. In this case thankfully the GFA component wasn’t much of the overall budget – but all over the country you can hear the sounds of people who suddenly have no work for the summer. I daresay there will be some good deals going on Edinburgh venues at the last minute.
hand on our balls Lammy and Jowell are popping up here and there telling us that this isn’t core ACE funding – it’s just the lottery top-up, and it wasn’t permanent. Well, Tess, if you were funding it properly there would be no need to top it up out of the lottery, would there? What seems to be clear is that they (or rather their predecessors) have made a balancing act over the last ten years (in contravention of the constant rhetoric that lottery money does not replace tax spend) that has enabled the cultural growth that made some of us (briefly) optimistic and led to some of those nice public buildings that everyone can enjoy all over the country – a genuine legacy only if they’re full of activity. And the current DCMS team have misunderstood how this works, taken the so-called optional bit out, and are latterly realising that that was the brick at the bottom of the pile.

It’s not strictly speaking true to say that the Tate Modern and the Royal Opera House only exist because of my sterling efforts, but the fact remains: you created a (semi)-stable system, and if you are taking it apart, then you need to plan for it and have a think. Not just suddenly whip some of the cash away. This is not really about the Olympics. The Olympics exist and need funding (and are being badly managed). Ditto the regeneration of East London. The Arts exist and need funding and, because they are not monolithic, the badly-managed parts of them fall away in any case. So, let’s chop out some emergent shoots to make room for the car park?

Improve GFA please. It is quite a poor system. But don’t take the money away. And don’t try to avoid the subject of the discussion about arts funding by telling us about other nice things you are spending the money on.
Blogging just to let off steam? you bet.

So I’ve been away (or busy maybe) for a bit and overwhelmed by the consistent requests for me to return to the blog. Not really, you’re all very discreet.

So I had a look around to see what’s rousing folk in the london theatre blog world. Goodness. Everyone loves/hates Attempts on Her Life, and quite a few people are excited by Anthony Neilson asking playwrights to be less boring and pretentious. Neilson is right to feel a bit I told you so about it, isn’t he? – he’s been being thrilling, imaginative and unpretentious for ages even when it wasn’t that fashionable. In fact his plays often seem a bit wilfully controversialist – it’s his determination not to let them be flabby that have saved them. I bet his old mucker Lisa Goldman wishes she had a few more like him to programme into Soho. I take a bit of an issue with his dislike of the pretentious though. You absolutely need to balance it and be tough on yourself, but pretentiousness has a lot to offer, in that it represents our urge to try out being something we’re not. Which has a good pedigree in the theatre community. So if I (or Chris Goode) pretend to the assurance of Robert Wilson in making a piece, it very likely benefits the assurance of the piece – Wilson is an awesome role model in that respect. If we copied his actual style it would be less successful. Shopping and Fucking is a pretentious play because Ravenhill’s pretention to be a voice for the commercialised generation blended well with his hard-working well-made play structuring. It’s not as amazing and pure a source of innovation as those that come from necessity (“the only way to make this show work is to do it underwater/in the air/spoken half in Uzbek”) but it’s undeniably part of the psychology of every theatre maker, who is always pretending/trying to be less like (say) David Hare and more like (say) Anthony Neilson. All our best playwrights and theatre-makers are a bit pretentious. And they’re good enough not to let it get out of hand.

Attempts on Her Life is really part of the same debate. It’s not boring. If you’ve got the balls (apparently unlike some of the walker-outers at the whatsonstage board) then you can fight the deluge of images and struggle to draw your conclusions from Crimp and Mitchell’s uncompromised circus of situations and angles. For what it’s worth, I thought that the permanent presence of the (thrilling) camera work gave it feet of clay. Crimp’s scenarios are about a lot of things, and there were times when the production seemed to filter all of the text’s potential through a limiting lens: I know that we use the media to shape lots of our understanding of life – but it’s not the only way I understand people. It was also hard not to feel that the camera action was clumsy set next to the overwhelmingly detailed (and beautiful) choreography of Waves. That said, I wasn’t much taken with the content of Waves – it was pretty much pure theatre to me – and am much more interested by the content in Attempts. The focus on media gave the text a fierce clarity of purpose which it might not have in some of the more catholic productions – and it seemed conscious of its status as not the only ever production. I think that’s what I like most about Mitchell’s shows now – this is her version and it’s not the end of the story. Clearly Hytner has made a good choice in continuing to invite her back to be a standard bearer for intelligent experiment in his programme. How great to be watching the rock band section thrash away in the bland old Lyttelton, with memories of the (equally effective but totally different) lush underscoring of Therese Raquin still in memory. I’m suspicious of encore’s effort to turn it into a polarised fight between the backward lithic critics and the fiery knights of progress – it’s only a show, it’s got problems – but I was much more appalled by the people who seem to be offended by it. Blimey, fogeys, it’s a national theatre, not just yours. I mean, sure, be offended by Jerry Springer if you don’t believe in freedom of speech and creativity (and expose yourself as a censor). But what’s to be offended by in a play that has a good go at discussing perception and reality, in a production that actually makes it easier to take something from? does your world not include rock and pop music, police progammes and late review and crappy films and adverts and all the rest? Discuss that some of the media satire was pretty limp (and Mitchell isn’t that assured as a film director..) engage with what’s in fornt of you. These people seem not to be interested in content – there’s plenty to get their (presumably gritted) teeth into in both staging and text, nor in theatre – theatricality – they would be having a lovely time. If they think theatre is just character acting and relationships then they probably need to be more selective when booking seats.

shapes

Here‘s the frequently wise and always unashamedly clever (and why should he be, there’s nothing wrong with it) Chris Goode gossiping about Robert Wilson; and somewhere in that lengthy post you’ll see him touch on formalism in theatre-making. He and Big Bob, he says, are the only people he can think of “who will be able to tell you what the 55th or the 74th minute of a piece will feel like long before it’s cast or its narrative is developed or its surface scenario is even conceived.”

Now, Goodie is clearly an exceptionally precise man (and I would challenge the 55th-minute thing only so far as to invite him to admit to being a little less specific than that) but there’s an anxiety here about the apparently slipshod conception of our theatre-makers (who I’m calling ‘writers’, even though some of them use different notation to others) – do they know what they’re doing at all? Did they really believe that workshop where someone said that once you come up with the characters and the scenario then it just all comes out? Clearly not, I think we can all agree when we watch a creaky plot device turning, or feel an awkward gear-change as we lurch into a sad bit. And let’s be honest, these are very often considerably clumsier in the borderline performance-art-world shows than in the well-made new plays. Possibly this is because they don’t care as much, or possibly because the experimentalists are often younger and callower than the extensively-workshopped playwrights.

We make plots and we make plans. We know what the arc of the piece is – and ‘what it will feel like’ is something we all hope we’ll be able to predict. Perhaps because Chris is the director of his own work, he can be more confident that the emphases won’t be reordered by another hand. I’m interested in how this plays off against the emergent demands of the narrative. If the narrative suggests that that 55th-minute elation might sit up and beg a little higher if it happened in the 63rd minute, because of the inspiring surge that is newly available for the 51st minute, then what’s wrong with that? Once you start getting dirty with the plausibility of the relationships or the realisation that there’s room for a really excellent joke there, then your pre-conception becomes just a framework. But isn’t it interesting to think about what happens if you did refuse to compromise that rigid plotting of emotional buttons; it can act as a demand on you to find a better, more efficient, possibly more inventive way of telling that preceding bit of story. Perhaps your original time/feeling map could be a benevolent tyrant.

I do think that there should be a way for that formal conception to be the governor of a theatre piece. A way that the audience can approach a piece from a number of different directions, to be able to invest in it emotionally on a level that is separate from the advancing narrative. If you look at a sculpture or a painting, then you can choose your access point – it might be form, colour, texture or explicit or implicit narrative content; you can fly away on your peripheral associations and return, safe in the knowledge that the object will still be there and constant.
The existence of time, and our expectation that things will change causally over the course of it, means that it’s harder in theatre to maintain a shape and allow an audience that sort of freedom. But while the narrative (or some sort of narrative) unfolds, perhaps we could be concentrating on what remains solid within the pieces that we’re writing or making; what it is that is revealed and explored by the action.  I suspect what this usually is is the ‘writer’s’  worldview or set of values; it will be a conception of a person, a place, a time, or a concept. Isn’t this what happens in those historical verbatim pieces like Permanent Way or the Tricycle works; we know what events the unfolding narrative will deliver; what we’re watching is how they are deployed to reveal a (permanent) perspective/artefact.

So it’s not just the crazy experimentalists or the impenetrable avant-gardists who are  know that it’s not just the story that counts, it’s what you put in it; and I think the cannier and more experienced of the orthodox playwrights are as aware as Chris that they need to know how it will feel to watch various moments in their work for it to have real impact. Let’s not pretend this is some ideological divide; it’s a divide about which audience you want to be valued by.

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