Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Physical Theatre

I tend to excuse my limited knowledging by presenting it as part of a critical process: unlike the more circumspect academic, who will access books and videos, I prefer to build my understanding of a particular art form through my experience of it. There are problems inherent in this process - I blush at the idiocy of my earlier attemts to define physical theatre, based on two shows I saw at the National Review of Live Art and a vague programme note by Steve Slater - but the bold statement, made to be revised and desperately carving a tiny space in the critical corpus, is at least entertaining and when wrong, controversial enough to encourage somebody to correct me.

In other words, I retain the right to be complacent, ignorant, melodramatic, wrong, partisan and partial. I place more emphasis on the comment that can stimulate debate than the definitive definition. And I apologise for any inconvenience caused.

So, having said all of that, let's get down to today's grand statements. Without a safety net, I am going to discuss physical theatre. Welcome.

Physical theatre is, in the largest definition, any theatre that is not a radio play. The other extreme is that it is a particular approach to theatre, inspired in the UK by the work of DV8 and Frantic Assembly, that combines choreography and script. A couple of Fringes back, I tried to call it "any theatre that begins not with the word, but the body and movement" and then spent an entire August breaking down work into categories, annoying performers and Aristotleans around the world.

Then I went for this. "If contemporary dance is what happened in the west when dancers flung off the constraints of ballet, physical theatre is the next step: performers throwing off the constraints of contemporary dance."

If that isn't too annoying, I am going to explore what I think physical theatre might be by comparing four productions: Knee Deep, Formby, The Static and SexLife. They were all in the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe.

Knee Deep and The Static are physical theatre. Formby and SexLife are not. My categorisations here are instinctive. Now I am going to work out why I think this.

Knee Deep is a series of acrobatic routines - very impressive and performed with intense concentration and a cool soundtrack - that conjures not a narrative but shifting moods. The company, Cacus, come from a circus background and Knee Deep attempts to strip away both the carnival trappings and the compulsion to link together the tricks through any narrative. They remove the glamour found in, say, La Clique's burlesque influenced acrobatics, and the sort of story told by Tumble Circus in This Is What We Do For A Living, which chronicles a relationship break-up.

The Static is a mixture of Davey Anderson's script and the direction of two Frantic Assembly alumni: deeply indebted to the Frantic Assembly house style, where scripted passages alternate with choreographed sequences, it has a story - boy meets girl, boy blows up school - and characterisation. That the characterisation is a little archetypal rather than nuanced is more to do with the script than the movement.

What these share is an interest in communication of ideas through movement alone. Admittedly, The Static has a bad habit of describing a scene before it is choreographed (the boy announces that if this were a film, the next bit would be a montage, before leaping into a movement montage to music). But the intention is clear. The choreography is central to the impact of both pieces.

Formby is a one man show, starring a former member of Matthew Bourne's cast for Swan Lake. And a central centre features some nifty tap dancing. But the thrust of the story - it's a recap of George Formby's life, as charming as the man himself - is relayed through the songs and the storytelling.
Davey Anderson uses a great deal of storytelling in The Static - the actors often drop character to comment on the plot - but Formby would rapidly collapse without the monologue. Dropping the dance sequence here would lose nothing but a rather impressive spot of syncopation. That would be a shame, but not devastating to the overall show. If the scene where the four actors in The Static dance the hero's training in mental superpowers, the stop would stop making sense.

In SexLife, the naked body marks a major shift in the plot. It doesn't move, just appears. That's pretty physical, except its meaning (that the couple are going to have sex again and probably get over the post-partum blues) is dependent on the speech that accompanies the disrobing. In fact, the speech is so important, the actor need not have got her kit off, which led to The Guardian moaning about gratuitous female nudity.

I suppose that my instinctive definition was based on the relative importance and attention to physical presence to the overall inpact of the drama. Knee Deep is the most physical piece - it intrigued me because it followed a similar structure to contemporary dance, only used a circus movement vocabulary - and SexLife the least: both Formby and SexLife could be radio plays, I guess. They'd lose something, but Knee Deep and The Static would end up sounding like those episodes of my Radio Hour when the guests don't turn up and I just keep playing records and bits of spoken word recordings.

There's a definition of physical theatre that won't make it into the academic texts. Strike one for the Vile Dictionary.

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