HOW IS CRITICAL DISCOURSE KEEPING PACE WITH CONTEMPORARY THEATRE?
[“this is just a scene change to inconvenience Mark Lawson”]
Hello, I’m Andrew Haydon. A “tired reactionary-in-waiting”, thank you, Sean.
Embarrassingly, Sean has just said a lot of what I’m about to say.
So: “How is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?”
My initial reaction was: “It. Isn’t”.
I expect that’s what a lot of you have come here today to hear people say.
But, then the Bush asked me to come up with a title for my bit of these talks, and I offered them “Interrogating the Terms”. Having a fag outside just now, I realised I now want to call it “Alan Bennett: Our Contemporary”, but anyway. “Interrogating The Terms”:
Because, In a way, that’s my job.
Because I think it’s a good idea to interrogate terms.
And because, I thought, if the worst came to the worst, I could probably do it off the top of my head.
So, interrogating the terms:
What do we mean by “contemporary theatre”?
And: what do we mean by “critical discourse”?
Do we mean “all the theatre that is being made today” and “all the reviews that are written about all the theatre that is being made today”?
Interrogating the question:
what I take the question to be asking is not about the means by which “critical discourse” or “theatre criticism” does or does not keep pace with contemporary theatre, but the extent to which it manages to do so.
And, if that’s what we mean; actually, the answer is that not only does “critical discourse” keep pace with “contemporary theatre”, most of the time it’s ahead of it.
Contemporary British Theatre is not such a complex and rapidly moving creature that it is constantly out-pacing the critics.
Indeed, if we’re picturing this in terms of a race – as the question seems to invite us to – then, most of the time, the critical discourse is standing-about having a bit of a natter while contemporary theatre runs backwards and forwards over a very small section of the track from about 50 years ago.
Let’s think about contemporary theatre:
I would argue that most of it is pretty easy to keep pace with.
What’s opened over the last week?
There was a new, modern, updated version of Euripides’ Women of Troy at The Gate
There was a new, modern, updated version of Chekhov’s The Seagull at the Southwark Playhouse.
There was Lucy Prebble’s new play about updates to the modern world, The Effect, at the National Theatre.
And there as Hannah Silva’s new-ish piece of “experimental theatre” about modern political rhetoric at the Oval House.
And, well, actually, the “critical discourse” is pretty much on top of that... They know what that stuff is. [with the possible exception of Silva’s Opposition]
“Critical Discourse” is generally up-to-speed on “Contemporary Theatre”.
For the last month I’ve been writing a chapter for Methuen’s Modern British Playwrights: Decades
series. I’ve been doing the Oh-Ohs. The book has chapters on: Simon Stephens, David Grieg, debbie tucker green, Tim Crouch, and Roy Williams, which is interesting in itself.
My introductory chapter deals with The Rest of Theatre in the Oh-Ohs.
In 20,000 words.
While writing it, I noticed a few things that are relevant here:
Firstly: it made me think about the extent to which criticism does and does not frame the terms in which we think about theatre.
[hint: journalists are quick to parrot terms from interviews and press releases. I’m not sure they make up labels half as often as they repeat them.]
Secondly: I thought about where that where criticism (the “critical discourse”) could be found. And how that has changed over the last 12 years.
[hint: it’s gone from Time-Out-and-Lyn-if-you’re-lucky to an explosion of blogs, plus Lyn-if-you’re-lucky, and Time Out online only, unless you’re incredibly lucky.
The overall result is that there is A LOT more coverage now than there was in 1999
And it’s both more obscure and more accessible than ever before in terms of both location and availability. This is also perhaps true in terms of its contents.
Thirdly: I realised how little of “contemporary theatre” some people actually mean when they talk about “contemporary theatre”.
And it’s important to address this last point.
There’s a passage in Aleks Sierz’s book Rewriting The Nation – a survey of – capital N, capital W – “N”ew “W”riting in the Oh-Ohs – where he totally dismisses Alan Bennett’s The History Boys for being – and I quote – “simply not contemporary”.
He also dismisses all newly-written history plays as – quote – “mostly costume drama”. We might wryly note that it’s a good job Shakespeare’s editors did not make the same distinction.
His book; his rules. Fine. Whatever.
In Michael Billington’s book, State of the Nation, there’s a bit where – having laid into Shunt’s 2004 show Club Topicana for a couple of pages – he concludes: “In the end, the future of the theatre rests with its playwrights.”
Again: his book, his rules, his taste. He’s free to say what he thinks and to be judged on his judgements.
I’m also troubled by the assumption that seems to be contained within the question we’re here to hear about today: that “critical discourse” is not “keeping pace” with “contemporary [British] theatre”
[I keep adding the “British” because I think that’s what we’re really talking about here]
I’m troubled by the idea that it’s a critic’s job to “keep up”.
I mean, yes, on one hand, basic comprehension should be a minimum requirement for the job.
On the other hand, to understand something – to have kept pace with it – is not the same as endorsing it.
Long-windedly, the conclusion I’m aiming towards is that this isn’t a question of “critical discourse”. And it isn’t a question of “keeping pace”.
I believe Michael and Aleks are both pretty much up-to-speed with almost all of what goes on in Contemporary British Theatre.
No, I do.
About once every year, every other year, once every three years, they might see something that they totally fail to get. We all might.
A Blasted, A Romeo Castellucci, A Forced Entertainment, A Three Kingdoms.
One a year, I reckon. If that. And I notice that two of those aren’t British anyway.
In each case, I’d argue that there was a valid case to be made that these were not failures of comprehension resulting in poor reviews, but differences in taste between director and critic. Or maybe between writer and critic.
The question raises a question about the extent to which theatres put faith in the critics.
The extent to which critics have a “chilling effect” on the work that theatres are prepared to risk their necks making.
And then there’s the question: is it really the critics – in the case of these rare cases of incomprehension/differing tastes – who make the crucial difference?
“The critics” loved that West End Show about a pig, which closed early.
“The critics” loathed that show with Queen songs that is still running about a million years after it opened.
The critics can be surprising in their tastes.
Theatre managements can be less surprising.
After all, critics go to the theatre night after night. They can be quixotic. They can like Benedict Andrews’s Three Sisters but not Nübling’s Three Kingdom’s, they can prefer the Russian Vanya to the British one with people off the telly in it, that people might have expected them to prefer.
So, to an extent, where applicable, I think theatres should stop blaming their own timidity on the imagined tastes of old men and ignore them.
They should grow their own audiences, and should just make work that they believe in.
There are a lot of critics and if there’s a discourse at all, it’s because they are a more catholic bunch than they’re sometimes given credit for.
In the mean time, I’m looking forward to seeing more contemporary theatre that is also genuinely *New*.
So, from my perspective, you run faster, we’ll keep up...