Sunday 15 November 2009

A question of attribution

You might already have read my Guardian blog this week, but after a bit of hmming and ha-ing, I thought I’d post my first draft here, since I think it is significantly different enough to the final piece to be of additional interest. If you have read the original, I hope the new-to-you bits putting it in a wider European context justify a re-read enough to forgive the bits that are just directly repeated.

Watching lots of German theatre last week, I was also struck by how culturally conditioned our assumptions might be. In Britain, it seems fair to say that the idea of a “writers’ theatre” prevails – if only subconsciously. That is to say, if a critic is reviewing a new play then they will generally tend to credit most of the action on the stage to the writer. The director will have been “serving the text”. Of course, many British writers collaborate in this process, offering scripts containing descriptions of the room or rooms in which the play is set and even tones of voice in which a character delivers a line, or to whom. Thus, critics needing to apportion responsibility seem to lean toward painting the director as someone who has simply moved the actors around within a world created by the writer.

A particularly striking example comes from a few years ago, when Telegraph critic Charles Spencer reviewed Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water). It’s a particularly personal attack on Ravenhill, and centres on Spencer’s distaste at a scene in which four friends of a coma victim sexually violate her. Except, Mark didn’t write that scene. The production was created by the physical theatre company Frantic Assembly and they just happened to stick in this movement sequence in between two written scenes. So, the direction of Spencer’s bile was entirely misaimed.

In the opposite vein, consider the adulation and opprobrium heaped in equal measure on the shoulders of Katie Mitchell or Rupert Goold. As soon as either of them stage a play, it often feels as if the play or writer becomes nigh-on invisible; a mere provider of lines around which these directors weave their illuminating/infuriating (delete according to taste) spells.

At the same time, designers seem to get even shorter shrift. Something I am frequently struck by in German theatre is the sheer imagination of their stagings, and to give them their due, the credit for “Bühne” is right next to “Regie”. But surely there are similar examples in British theatre – after ten years in the West End and extensive touring, pretty much everyone knows the house that falls to pieces at the end of Stephen Daldry’s production of An Inspector Calls, but who could name the designer (without using Google)? Or: who created the chilling Stalinist basement that gave Goold’s Macbeth so much of its power?

I’ve already written about the short shrift actors often seem to get ( from critics, but even here, how do we know where the performance comes from? Has a director spent weeks creating genius in intense collaboration, or, worse, is a dreadful performance from an actor precisely because they have followed to the letter a set of utterly wrong-headed directions?

But then, beyond this, how much of our enjoyment has been subliminally created by barely perceptible shifts in light, or by sound effects or compositions that complement the action on the stage?

In short, while it feels as if culturally we might finally be moving away from anxieties about “directors’” vs. “writers’” theatre (, who actually did what still seems to be an impenetrable mystery from this side of the footlights.

1 comment:

Alison Croggon said...

I think critics write about text by default because they are writers, and written language is the bit they best understand. Which does make you wonder why many of them don't just stay home and read a book.

Writing about performance is very difficult indeed, because you're attempting to articulate what escapes or goes beyond (or inhibits or destroys, in both positive and negative ways) the possibilities of words, the physical presence of bodies... writing about performance in space and the differing relationships between text, performance, design (sound, lighting, set, costumes) to the audience and to each other can be a daunting ambition, and perhaps is mostly impossible. As you point out, it's difficult for an outside eye to actually know whose decision is what, although familiarity with particular artists always helps. All the same, it's a good start to stop thinking that a work of theatre is simply a vehicle for a text; in the best circumstances even the most play-ish of plays is never simply that.