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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?

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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.

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Why?

I make theatre, in the UK, and here I am going to try to work out for myself what I believe in. I can only apologise for doing this. It’s an attempt to organise my thoughts and arguably some sort of self-help. It may not be very interesting. I’m going to try to restrict myself to thinking about things here working on the assuumption that no-one is reading. If you are for god’s sake don’t comment or i might clam up. If you do, I will try not to find out who you are – the anonymity is good news for me and for you. Of course if you are someone who knows me you might recognise me from the thoughts. Maybe.

Actually forget that. Do comment. Together we might realise something important.

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