Wednesday 4 February 2015

Why New?


After last week’s engagement with the crazy world of David Edgar, I was left slightly confused. Confused because the picture of divisions within British theatre that he described didn’t even remotely relate to recent debates.

Luckily, on Monday Theatertreffen announced its selections for TT15. And, yesterday, the excellent German-theatre-academic-in-Canada, Holger Syme, constructed a *really* brilliant essay about why those selections disturbed him.

Go and read it. Now. Read it all.

Done that? Good. Ok.

Obviously that post isn’t an argument about British Theatre Culture at all. It’s a particular take on the perceived direction in which another nation’s theatre culture might be headed. And, in the process, a clear-sighted description of what the merits of Germany’s theatrical present are. What is also interesting is that that direction sounds like “towards the British model”. As Dan Rebellato notes, in his ineffably sane presentation of the same report that Edgar made such a meal of: “new work (whether written by an individual writer or devised) represents 59% of [British] productions, 64% of performances and 63% of attendances of all forms of theatre.”

The interesting question then was never: “should new things be written or devised?” – which is a nonsense binary anyway (given that devised things can be written down, and, more crucially, written things can be devised within) – but the much more interesting questions: “What should our repetoire be?” And: “How do we go about staging that repetoire?”

Consider Syme’s praise of Auseinandersetzung:

“I would argue that a theatre that doesn’t wrestle with its own past, openly, repeatedly, continually, also lacks a vital element. I remain convinced that what is so vital about German theatre, and so vitally different, is that commitment to the struggle: the Auseinandersetzung with the works of the past. Auseinandersetzung is a great word: it means both fight or debate or argument and analysis or coming to terms with something or attending to something. To come to terms with a play from the 18th century, to terms that make sense now, isn’t easy. It requires commitment and seriousness; and in the theatre, it requires playfulness and openness and daring. It requires a dedication to bridging an unbridgeable gap. The staging of an old play can feel and look like a fight to the death with the text. Nothing, to me, is more exciting than watching that struggle — that impolite encounter between a classic play and a modern actor or director, free of deference or compromise.”

Something like this should be nailed above the entrance of every directors’ course in the country. And directors might consider bringing similar thinking to their productions of new plays too.

It is striking in Edgar’s piece that he rejoices in the reduction of the proportion of new works to established classics. I wonder if that is really healthy. Of course it’s possible to argue that *any* new work is marginally preferable to any classic staged badly; at least there’s novelty, right?  But neither situation is something to hope for.

It strikes me that Britain it at an interesting point right now. It feels as if the best of our domestic productions of classics are better than they’ve ever been in my theatregoing life (Katie Mitchell, Rupert Goold, Ivo Van Hove, etc.), and do indeed wrestle urgently (albeit in a more British way, perhaps) with questions of how and why we stage a classic text. Meanwhile, our best new work is consistently more interesting, more diverse, and more interestingly/excitingly staged than at any prior point I can remember. And yet, at the same time, there’s still an awful lot of *default* – in writing, direction, and devising – around. Of course, maybe a lot of that “default” work can be chalked up to “reassuringly old-fashioned, and part of a thriving plurality”. Although some absolute shockers do creep through in the more progressive venues from time to time. But reading Holger’s defence of the classics did make me wonder whether we don’t over fetishise The New over here, rather than necessarily considering the proper importance of new stagings and what those can achieve.

And perhaps, taking over from how we make our new work, or how new plays should be directed, the question of “Why a New Play at all?” is set to return as our biggest theatrical culture war. And with it, a raging row about directors taking classics to bits in order to say anything meaningful with them.

(*Of course* the sensible answer is: “A healthy balance of both classics and new, please. Thanks.” But that isn’t going to stop everyone writing intemperate articles for a year or so first, so I might as well get credit for calling the trend, right?)

[Edit: while writing, it was reported that THE BRECHT ESTATE OF ALL PEOPLE are grumpy abut Frank Castorf’s production of Baal, which has just been selected for Theatertreffen. Presumably that means they’re prepared to stump up for all those plays that Brecht rewrote as he saw fit while at the Berliner Ensemble.]

1 comment:

BenjiP said...

Hi Andrew

I posted a similar thing on Facebook just before Christmas - about fetishizing The New. Do I get to call the trend?