The Ticklish Subject
There’s a great article in today’s issue by Sam Stutter, the lighting designer and operator of No Wonder. In it, Sam identifies two different strains of theatregoer. While I’d dispute the precise lines by which he divides the two camps, Stutter hits on something absolutely central to one of the biggest debates in British theatre. In the process he also highlights an interesting tendency in yesterday’s discussion session.
The idea that “British theatre” is even something that can even be discussed as a single entity is flawed. Say “theatre” to some and it immediately conjures the musicals of London’s West End, to others it is the prestige classics of the RSC, Donmar in the West End and the National (I apologise for this London-centricity – I’m based in London, and am not lucky enough to have anyone who wants to pay my rail fares to review around the UK or pay me enough to pay them myself), for others, British theatre immediately connotes the new writing boom of the past ten or more years.
For others, the very idea of ‘new writing’ is deemed reactionary in the extreme and the new movement in British theatre is the various schools of physical theatre, devising, post-dramatic texts and Live Art. Elsewhere mainland European-style director’s theatre and experimental combinations of all of the above are making a bid for recognition.
However, in yesterday’s discussion, as Stutter notes, several of those making comments made some pretty bald assertions about what is and is not acceptable theatre. The staging of Vowel Play, for example, was criticised for being too static. The use of microphones was questioned, while the style of acting was both praised and criticised. It was interesting to see one type of theatre being roundly condemned for not conforming to the rules of an entirely different sort of thing. Of course various festgoers have their own tastes from which their analysis stems. But their criticisms are easily dismissed by the companies concerned when they foreground such preferences. In one way, this might be a pity – after all, the problems described may well contain a kernel of truth. However, while they remain couched in terms that could be read by those being criticised as coming from an entirely different place than where they intend, the charges levelled get dismissed without consideration.
Some of the best writing in the magazine today comes from contributors trying to articulate their responses to completely unfamiliar forms. A number of reviewers begin their write-ups of Never Enough either mentioning or apologising for their unfamiliarity with dance theatre/physical theatre/contemporary dance. However, where they differ from those who reckon they’ve already pinned down what theatre is “meant to be/do” is in their willingness to open themselves to the new experience, involve themselves actively with what it’s doing, and respond to it by relating their emotional and intellectual reactions. Allowing yourself to be moved by something you’re not sure you even understand is a pretty brave move. Articulating this response in writing and allowing it to be printed out and shared amongst your peers is courageous in the extreme. It is both moving and very hopeful that there are so many at this festival prepared to do so.