Thursday, 3 March 2011


For the last few weeks, I’ve had four Word documents staring accusingly at me from my Desktop every time I’ve opened my laptop.
They’re entitled: “Properly”, “About”, “Professional” and “Political”. I've come to think that they're the same article approached from four different directions. There's also a fifth piece called “Criticism”, but we'll come to that in due course...
Today I'm going to have a stab at writing “About”.


My favourite theatre joke:

Someone meets their friend out of a theatre, “What's it about?” she asks.

“It's about three hours” the friend replies.

But it's true; “What is it about?” is pretty much the first question anyone ever asks about a play, film or book. Or maybe the second thing after: “Was it any good?”.

As such, you could argue that telling your readership what a play is *about* lies at the heart of theatre criticism.

But I'm interested in something earlier in the process than reception/perception of the production here: how theatres and then audiences commission and then sell, or are sold, the idea of plays “about” something.

The question most recently re-occurred to me when I read the Guardian Theatre Blog piece The Biting Point: Southall 30 years on. I'll admit part of the reason it made me think about the question of how we make plays “about” something, is that it was published directly before my own article which, give or take a bit of nuance, pretty much uses a German staging of Othello as a club with which to bludgeon the far more mainstream Clybourne Park.

And here, just before it was published, was a perfectly reasonable article talking about taking the straight-forward (perhaps: “proper”) approach to writing a play “about” a particular subject – the subject of racism. The subject to which my blog was just about to suggest about the least straight-forward approach possible. As a result, I had kittens and read the Biting Point blog several times hoping that it didn't become a club with which I was about to be bludgeoned.

However, the Biting Point blog would have bothered me anyway – completely in the abstract, purely in intellectual terms - I haven't seen the play, although I do have a copy which I intend to read as soon as I have a moment – in the same way that the titles of some of the sessions at this year's Devoted and Disgruntled bothered me. At D&D (Matt Trueman's review of D&D here for the uninitiated), as always, there seemed to be sessions called for pretty much every conceivable aspect of theatre under the sun, and several sessions not even faintly connected to theatre at all, which is all part of the fun. But there was a repeated strain of question which seemed to be formulated thus: "How can Theatre block the flow of a river in a steep valley, thereby storing all the water in a reservoir, which can then be used for hydro-electricity or irrigation?"
To which the sensible answer is: You want a dam for that, not theatre.

It might sound too flippant an objection, and I'm not *implacably* opposed to theatre being put to utilitarian purposes, but nor am I much of a fan of the practice. And there are some things which other media do better. For the presentation, analysis and discussion of historical fact, for example, there is the book. For reporting facts quickly and accurately, there is the newpaper or the internet. For reaching large numbers of people, there's television. For trying to bring about a change of policy or government there is armed resistance or mass demonstration.

As soon as I write the above, I think of examples which disprove my assertions, or else I long to see the shows which prove me wrong. I suppose what I'm clumsily getting at, it that what theatre does best is still basically theatre. Except everyone has a different definition of what actually constitutes “theatre”.

What I find frustrating is the overwhelming prevalence of one particular model for exploring “about”. I don't think it's too much to describe it thus: you pick an Issue, any Issue; you then create a small group of characters, usually about six and put them in a situation in which they come into contact with The Issue. The Issue is then explored by the characters talking about It, their relationship to It. Possibly, if you're lucky, there's a story, how It changes them. At the moment, I'm struggling to think of a single play I've liked which has done the above.

I'll enter a couple of qualifiers here. I don't think this applies to all modern British plays by any stretch of the imagination. The best contemporary play of the last six months or so that I've read recently is John Donnelly's The Knowledge. It was reviewed in various quarters as “about teachers” or “about school” (see also: “reeks of authenticity... Clearly written from experience” - The Guardian, “Donnelly has personal experience of working in state schools and his play has a satisfying smack of authenticity” - The Telegraph), but that possibly says more about the fact that critics need to say something to fill the “about” slot before going into detail. Granted it was also a part of the Bush theatre's season “about” education (“In response to one of the most urgent and divisive issues of our times, the Bush presents The Schools Season: The Knowledge by John Donnelly and Little Platoons by Steve Waters. The season will bring together an ensemble company of ten actors and a series of talks, debates and events which will examine education in Britain today”), but I still reckon John (declaration of interest, he's also a friend, but that doesn't make his play any less good. Being friends only means I'd possibly keep my mouth shut if I'd really hated it, never that I'll say it's better than it really is) pretty much got himself out of writing an “about” play.

Of course it *is* *about school*, but basically it's about people. There's no one “issue” constantly putting words into the characters' mouths, no one subject they're constantly forced to discuss. The cast of characters aren't thinly veiled ciphers for this or that side of a particular argument. I wouldn't even say that they're even demonstrative of particular behaviours as each character, much as in life, tends to act in different ways in different situations. If the the play has an issue, it might best be expressed as “people do stuff”. Which, on paper/in theory, sounds like a terrible mess, but it really isn't. Moreover, reading it, it struck me that this was a rare thing to see in written for British theatre – a play that wasn't begging to have its subject recognised.

Reading this play forcibly reminded me that I don't actually dislike narrative drama (and before it After the Dance). And made me think: a good story well told can be just as effective as a non-linear or abstract work for making you think about things if it functions in the same much-less-directional way. It was a bit of a revelation for me.

Because, the debate does seem stupidly polarised. Either something falls into the “issue play” *about*-a-subject camp, or else it seems to be “bonkers, devised, crazy avant-gardism” or something (yes, I know this is rough, but let's run with it).

And, yes, you and I both know which camp I prefer (this is something I intend to get back to in “Criticism”, but, in brief, after a while having a “preference” just became too problematic – at least for someone in my position, especially when the preference is for the losing side).

However, I'd argue that this is a two- (or maybe three-) way problem (the possibly third party being theatre managements) – on one hand critics (or more widely and more properly “the media”) like legible, easily summarised “about”s. Look at the coverage of Greenland or The Heretic. Look at the amount of it, and then look at the character of it. Irrespective of the actual plays, or even their popularity, both plays got massive additional coverage because they were big *about* plays in major London theatres. In short, if you pick the right *about*, you get a lot of extra, free publicity. The other party – writers (and maybe theatres) – will obviously notice this, understand how *about* plays are written, go away and write/commission them.

The problem is, this process of legibility means that the worse sort of plays are those which garner some of the most coverage (obviously it's better to get an Oscar winning director and two fairly huge actors – then at least the story will be the show itself...). It's a process that means that theatre (at least, non-musical-theatre) gradually acquires a reputation for being dull, “worthy” and issue-based, thus guaranteeing reduced coverage and less space for criticism, which in turn means shorter, necessarily less insightful, more shorthanded reviews, which means plays strive for even greater legibility knowing full well that the press can't hope to unpack nuance or subtlety in 120 words. So it goes.

Of course, there are also good, sensible, rational reason for the popularity of this sort of hi-legibility theatre, which is that it can be much more easily written about. Or, from the artist's point of view (and the theatre producing it), it's much less of a hostage to fortune. If a play has a clearly defined *about* then obviously it's easier for everyone to discuss that, rather than the alternative which I suppose I am proposing – the abstract *about* or the narrative *not-about* play (or rather, the narrative play which doesn't explicitly name its subject or subjects).

I mean, these would take a bit of effort, no? And I wonder if effortlessness is something that British theatre has come to strive for. I'm not talking about impossible exertion here, just something more than being handed everything on a plate; clearly labelled and more-or-less pre-chewed.

The problem with something that doesn't spell things are manifold – for starters it's asking more of the viewer, and of its critics. Equally it leaves itself open to the chance that people are going to be able to miss what it's saying. There's also the fact that in part it's opening itself up in order to open up its audience. As such, the experience of the show that people have, what they take from it might be more personal. The very personal response is also kind of an anathema to theatre criticism as it's currently practised.

In a way, I can kind of appreciate why everyone seems to have settled for this way of doing things. But I don't think it's doing playwrighting, criticism or British theatre any favours.

I suppose what I'm really proposing is a fairly significant cultural shift. I'm not sure where it would have to begin, though – the commissioning process, the PR blurb or the reception committee (i.e. the critics – and, sure, the blogosphere).

It would be interesting to see what happened if something like this was sold as “a response to one of the most urgent and divisive issues of our times”. I intend this as acts of good faith on all sides. I don't mean, just finding any old piece of dance and slinging it on while labelling it “a response to the financial crisis” or some such, and then the press pseuding-it-up and saying they totally get it or alternatively flatly refusing to give it any credit at all.

I mean actual artists, playwrights and performers being allowed the lee(sp?)-way to produce something more than a pros and cons Punch and Judy show, and then for the critics and public to respond to it by actually sitting, watching hard, thinking about what they've seen, and maybe seeing if the piece resonates for them. Of course not everything will resonate with everyone, but then not everyone likes everything at the moment anyway, so as a direction to open up, what's to lose?