Sunday 30 March 2008

Noises Off editorials - Tuesday

After writing a rather disgruntled review for yesterday's Noff of Lost in the Wind, I happened to come across several Lost Spectacles in the bar, and so I ended up reiterating everything I wanted my review to communicate directly to the company. (Actually, one last thing; change the title – I've lost count of the number of people who have called it Gone with the Wind). Yes, I had my problems with the piece, but at the same time, I also really liked a lot of it, and I was impressed enough by what I liked to want to tell the company about what hadn't worked, because I think they stand a good chance of making some absolutely outstanding work in the future.

At the same time, I was conscious that there was another monologue running in my head to do with originality. And I pretty much tried to keep a lid on it, both in my review and in the discussion yesterday morning. The argument runs something like this: I have seen quite a lot of work which is strikingly similar to Lost in the Wind. A lot of other people haven't. The company may well not have seen half the shows that their show reminds me of.

So, on one hand, Lost Spectacles *are* re-inventing the wheel – “Look at this!” they say. “Wow!” says everyone who hasn't seen a wheel before. “Hey, that's not a bad wheel you've got there,” says everyone else who has. On the other hand, isn't one of the best ways of learning anything to discover it for yourself? And isn't that part of the point of this festival: allowing student companies to put their work on show and learn more about it through its exposure to a wider audience? Exposing students to the new work being created by their peers and offering them the chance to engage with it up close.

At the same time this festival offers those same companies the chance to tangle with practitioners, and even (whisper it) critics, older and uglier than them. And those parties may well tell them that their work isn't half as original as they might have thought. An example; at my first festival, eleven years ago, I was having a chat with Robert Hewison about criticism and he made the (to me, then) revelatory comment that eras of theatre have a dominant “sign”. Back in 1997 he cited the battered brown leather suitcase as the dominant “sign” that stood for a certain eastern European sensibility in current visual theatre. So I smiled when I saw one eleven years later still being used by a student company.

I was similarly interested to hear the company themselves admit to having been influenced by Slava's Snowshow. Indeed, much of what was great about Lost... seemed to be connected to the company's taste in borrowings, rather than especially original inventions. Improbable's newspaper man makes an appearance, as do anthropomorphised household objects, which are common to several recent shows from the same tradition.

It was a shame, then, that in yesterday's discussion – or, perhaps “Feedback Session”, given how little actual *discussing* actually happened – that when Ian Shuttleworth asked the company about the round of spontaneous applause that had occurred in the Saturday afternoon performance, his question, having been answered intelligently by the company, was then also fielded by another member of the audience, who seemed to feel the need to a) shut down what had already been flagged up as a simple enquiry and b) interpret it as some form of criticism of the show. Judging by the round of applause that this proxy defence raised it seemed clear that this sort of Brook No Dissent policy had many sympathisers.

What concerns me about this approach to the discussions by members of the audience is that it will ultimately limit what any company stands to gain from taking part in a debate about their work in a very damaging way. If everyone is '”nice”; if everyone refuses to name faults in a production, or identify areas which were “less successful” (which failed, or didn't work, in old money), then no one will learn anything. At the same time, companies – like Unlimited in Sunday's discussion – must keep faith in their work. If Katie Mitchell (to pick one example entirely at random) listened to the critics of the national press when her production of Attempts on her Life opened, and had made changes accordingly – or, worse, demanded Nicholas Hytner remove it from the Lyttleton immediately, then London would have been robbed of what was the theatrical event of '07.

So, to conclude, critics and discussion participants: be brave enough to voice your dissent, to own your opinions and knowledge, and to fight your corner. Companies: own what you have done, remember why you did it, listen to what is being said, and then sort out for yourselves whether the person addressing you has a point or not. Yes, it's a tall order. It's difficult stuff. But trust me here, it's worth it.

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