Sunday 30 March 2008

Noises Off editorials - Thursday

There has been a lot of talk about responsibility in various forms this week. In these pages over the last couple of days there has, rightly, been passionate debate back and forth on the question of a critic's responsibility to those he or she is critiquing, with the added consideration of the fact that this is a festival and the strange dynamic that this creates. After all, in the Real World, performers are far less likely to find themselves standing next to the person who slated their show at a bar or seated next to them in successive performances.

While student critics at this festival might be viewed by some as spineless, cowardly assassins, bear in mind that firstly, they are required to sign their articles. Unsigned articles are not published. As a result, any member of any company can stand up in a discussion and ask a critic to stand up and reveal themself. Secondly, there is the oft-forgotten fact that Noises Off also publishes a fair amount of denunciations, both general and specific, of various critics or sets of reviews. It is worth noting that these criticisms of criticism often display a far more savage tone than many of the articles to which they are objecting. It's a curious feature of these kinds of meta-reviews that they forget that in writing about a review, they are in fact writing a review. And by calling the first writer all sorts of stupid, they are actually committing much the same sort of offence as that to which they theoretically object. That's fine. But it should be acknowledged that student critics, by writing for a public, are putting themselves on the line too. After all, it does take a certain amount of bravery to put your writing in front of anyone else.

Another sort of responsibility that has been considered is that of the theatre company to their audience. I suspect that this subject will get a good deal more attention in the discussion of Metamorphosis on Friday. Curiously, the reverse position Рthe responsibility of the audience to that which they are watching Рhas been largely ignored. Do audiences have responsibilities? Sure, there have been notes in the daily discussions about being sensible enough to take cough medicine and switching off your mobile phones, but this is scarcely more than common sense and courtesy. Beyond this, there is the perennial question of walking out and/or leaving at the interval. A recent article by the West End Whingers asked When Did Audiences Get So Polite? After all, disapproving tuts at someone walking out in disgust is hardly in the same order as the rioting at the premi̬re of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, or the throwing of rotten fruit 'n' veg by early modern and Restoration theatregoers.

Beyond this, though, there is a more interesting question of audience responsibly concerning the way that they actually engage with theatre. Last year I attended the SpielArt festival of experimental theatre in Munich as part of a programme for critics run by a group called Festivals in Transition. What was most fascinating, beyond the obvious appeal of many of the works, was the difference in the way that the audiences in Germany habitually approached theatre. On mainland Europe there is a far more ingrained culture of reading signs, of semiotics. It is an approach which has some currency among the cognoscenti over here, but is still very much a minority position. The predominant reason for this is educational. In Britain theatre is still initially presented as a subset of Eng. Lit. Most Britons' first exposure to Shakespeare, for example, will be in an English lesson. Elsewhere in Europe theatre is often attached to the Visual Arts faculties of universities, and of course this impacts enormously on both the sort of theatre that gets created and the way in which it is approached. There are complex reasons for this. To reduce them to a simplistic level, Britain has a phenomenal writing culture and a deep-seated mistrust of abstract thought.

What was most heartening about yesterday's discussion of When You Cry in Space the Tears Go Everywhere was the ease with which virtually everyone who spoke seemed to have approached the piece. The company's initial trepidation at the outset was completely understandable. Here was a group of obviously intelligent and committed young theatre-makers whose working methods and end product were demonstrably leftfield (perhaps Chris Goode's favoured expression for non-mainstream - “upstream” - should be used here) at a festival where the majority of the selected work is revivals of extant texts. Indeed, the level of engagement on display was impressively sophisticated. Audiences for the most part didn't seem at all perturbed by the fractured structure, lo-fi aesthetic or non-linear (non-) narrative. People also appeared to be quite happy making their own meanings out of the work.

When I was in Munich, one of my German colleagues explained that their understanding of theatre was essentially that the contract between performance and audience was a compact of signs: that a piece of theatre would provide something which the audience in turn could “read”. This is a mutual relationship of both responsibility and trust. It is a model that the British could profitably adopt more widely, but yesterday's discussion suggested that such a move is a very real possibility.

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