Like Anthony Mamos, I missed the first NSDF discussion this year, but since it still prompted his article, The Defence of Contemp-oree (Noises Off 10, Sun, p.4), I feel safe responding to the points he raises. And what a curious mixed bag of points they are. I don’t know who first raised the question: “Where are all the classical texts this year?” (although I could take a rough guess, Robert Hewison) or how it was framed, but “contemporary work” is an interesting label.
In his piece, Mamos adopts “contemporary” to mean “devised” or “completely new” – I suspect it was initially intended to include the extant plays being performed at the festival; the oldest of which being Timberlake Wertenbaker’s 22-year-old veritable geriatric Our Country’s Good. It is at least refreshing not to see that a specious division being driven between “New Writing” and “Devised Work”. That debate was always nonsense and is now largely spent, having been debated across blog on blog and in the comment threads of the Guardian Theatre Blog, even unto death. So, Contemporary Vs Classical is a nice new stupid argument to take its place.
According to Mamos, “the question of the validity of contemporary work, particularly devised pieces, was raised at today’s discussion”. Firstly, assuming this is a fair account, I’d ask “Why?” and “By whom?” After all, isn’t all work made this year “contemporary” by definition? Whether it be a new piece devised by students or Nick Hytner’s revival of The London Assurance at the NT, isn’t it all going on right now? Going on right now is the essence of contemporaneity.
Questioning the validity of “the contemporary” wholesale seems to be somewhat counterproductive, but perhaps in the Festival bubble, the question seems more pressing. Out here in the wider world, however, I can assure Mr Mamos that “the contemporary” really isn’t in need of defence. If anything, there is far more funding available to develop new work, to join a “New Writing Programme”, to “scratch” work at any number of festivals, than there is any opportunity to stage a classical text.
Mamos goes a bit further than defence, though. His “problem with classical theatre is simple – [he] doesn't like stories. [He] doesn't like being led by the hand through a narrative which aims to take [him] on an emotional curve through suspense to a unified conclusion.” Fair enough. That’s a pretty hardcore attitude and I suspect him of rather overstating his position for the sake of his argument, but that’s fine, I do see where he’s coming from. I’ve read Han-Thies Lehmann and Heiner Müller, I’ve seen work by René Pollesch, Rimini Protokoll, Gisele Vienne, Action Hero, Frank Castorf, Onroerend Goed, Tinned Fingers, Ivana Müller and, uh, Forced Entertainment (to name but several). I too, can happily live without a plot.
What’s more interesting is the direct comparison between the comments from the discussion of “the Classics” and the reviews of Dartington’s 4 Bar and Rising. Of the former Claire Trévien notes in her editorial, “Some DeMontfort students at the discussion mentioned a fear of misunderstanding these texts.” Meanwhile, the 4 Bar reviews frequently made reference to the apparently oblique nature of the work - its lack of story, its opaque meaning, etc. In other words “a fear of misunderstanding this text”.
It is apparent that this is not a simple question of ownership, but of confidence, theatrical vocabulary, entitlement, and the width of one’s frame-of-reference. Both “contemporary” movement-based, non-linear work and the canon of “classics” seem to throw different sets of students into apologetic or defiant despair.
The initial problem is one of anxiety, engendered primarily by the British education system, with a hefty bunk-up from wider British culture. British schools, with their emphasis on Shakespeare-exam passing, set up an almost perfect system for putting everyone off, while tacitly reinforcing the idea that Shakespeare – and by extension, the Greeks, the Romans, the rest of the Renaissance, the Spanish Golden Age, the Restoration, French neo-classicists, Enlightenment Germans, C19th Russians and so on – is a) difficult, and, b) something that you can get wrong.
When that is coupled to our boisterously Philistine culture, which deplores poncing about (a field into which theatre squarely falls, no matter how straightforward it is), and then to received wisdoms about “serving the text” and “doing it properly”, one can imagine why students might feel more inclined to approach something with a bit less baggage. Especially if, from the other side, they are being bombarded with information about more cutting-edge practioners and casual theories about how staging the classics is somehow reactionary, conservative or backward-looking.
Ironically, the students who have been given this impression then go on to create work which causes similar anxieties in those following the more “Eng. Lit.” route through “text-based theatre”. Coming from the latter background, I still remember the first bit of contemporary dance I saw that I didn’t dismiss out of hand, and the hours-long conversation I had afterwards with a dancer friend who patiently answered my questions until I felt comfortable that I understood what I’d seen. The fact is, assuming good faith and ability on the part of the makers, theatre can and often is a two-way exchange. There’s work in front of you (or around you, or whatever), but you often have to work at it too, but once you’re familiar with the genre, suddenly the viewing experience is transformed. The same is of course true of Shakespeare and the classics.
Mamos nearly concludes: “we could use these techniques to re-tell someone else’s classic story OR we could use them to blow the minds of our audience with something truly new... There are also some important, fascinating and truly beautiful pieces of contemporary theatre which move me and provoke thought in a way which no classical story ever could.” (We’ll ignore Sidney’s bit about being moved to virtue, as it’s the silliest sort of utilitarian argument imaginable – who wants to be “moved to virtue” FFS? Possibly David Hare and Michael Billington, but that’s not what art is for). I’m not entirely sure I buy the absolutism.
So: a plea. Stop thinking about the classics like you have been. Later this week there’s Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. Have a look at that, note that it is “contemporary theatre” – a text – but also a “re-tell[ing of] someone else’s classic story”. And then think about the million ways Kane’s text itself might be staged. And maybe think about being less hung up on the boundaries. Stage Shakespeare. If necessary cut more than half the text. Stick a bunch of stuff into it. There’s no rule saying you can’t (in most of Europe I think there’s probably a law saying you must). Think again about what you’re trying to say, how you’re saying it, and why you’re saying it.
If you want a final argument, go and have a look at what Heiner Müller did to “classical” texts. Trust me, there’s very little by way of “narrative, emotional curve, suspense or unified conclusion”. Surprise yourself.