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 song, 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.
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.