Saturday, 8 September 2012

The Magic of Theatre (Warning: contains pontification)

Since I spend most of my time at the theatre - and believe that it is the natural forum for advancing the discussion of the issues most intimate and germaine to human existence - I have been trying to develop a theory of "what makes theatre good". My students at Tramway's Young Critics session can back me up when I say that I am happiest using whatever theory justifies my instinctive opinion, whether it's the Wikipedia version of Marxism or a variation on Aristotle's (pretty nonsensicle) notion of the Unities.

Being an autodidact doesn't help. What I am about to present has probably been explained before, in far more detail, by an author that I haven't read. It might also be a variation on the "suspension of disbelief" riff that I vaguely remember from University. I plead for tolerance and forgiveness. Also, I do have a really cool chart that helps me work out my star ratings, but I can't print that here because it is copyrighted by a serious philosopher and I like to reveal it to my students as a surprise. If I give it away here, there's no reason to join the Young Critics programme, apart from the chance to see a load of cool plays, listen to my weekly enthusiasms and become part of the new generation of informed, motivated critics.

This idea - such as it is - occurred to me halfway through The Fantasist during the Fringe. Theatre Temoin come from a physical theatre background, and admitted that this was their first stab at puppetry. They timed it well - puppetry is definitely this year's big thing - and applied it to appropriate content (The Fantasist is primarily an attempt to represent a distressed consciousness).

The main character, a young woman suffering from bi-polar, is descending into mania and is forced to make a choice: to either accept the mania, symbolised by a larger-than-life puppet of a sophisticated lover, or get back on the tablets and forge a reasonable life in the world of the sane.  As the lover hung over her closet, and manipulated her movements, I experienced a sudden dislocation of my perception. I realised that I was watching two things simultaneously.

The literal scene involved a real human being manipulated by a puppet. It had enough irony and meaning to keep me happy. The inanimate object controls the living being. The puppet was a figment of her imagination, and the literal sight caught the paradox of how the imagination can be more powerful than the person doing the imagining.

Then there is the scene being acted out - the pretend, the fictional. If I suspended disbelief - or have one of my sporadic bouts of insanity where everything becomes not what it is, but what it means - there was a monster emerging from the darkness and commanding a woman. The literal representation reinforced the imagery, but the metaphorical reading had its own power. I knew that if I watched the same scene in a film, it wouldnot have the same impact (unless the director was able to signpost the puppet's nature, initating the dual vision I receive in theatre). Film's veracity - it could always be a documentary - precludes the same immediacy and - dare I say it - alienation of my perception.

So the peculiar power of theatre lies in that ability to reveal two versions at the same time. Discuss.
That explanation is pretty dense - I reckon there's a PhD in it for someome with patience. However, I am a critic, not an academic. I'll give a few more examples, and run away, hoping not to get flamed.

There are two long sequence's in Sylvia Dow's A Beginning, A Middle and An End when the characters build up, and then dismantle the set. On the literal level, it's a way of setting the stage without having to have an interval, a bunch of stage hands wandering about, putting the tables and chairs in place, covering the space with advocado trees, reminding the audience that they are watching a fiction.

On the other, it's a montage sequence about how - in the first sequence - a couple build up their relationship through the accumulation of household items and how - in the second - the death of a partner is like a diminution of the self.

The second session rather reminded me of this great joke about a blind man and a dishonest doctor.
In the context of Dow's play, however, both interpretations feed the play's impact. Part of Dow's point is the way in which people build up their lives through the telling of stories and the interludes beautifully, and literally, illustrated the process of addition and subtraction that feeds the story.

By contrast, a less effective version appeared in Macbeth 2008, one of the many Polish pieces that appeared in the August Festivals. A two tier set was used as a series of stages for this updating of the Scottish play, and the literalism of the helicopter landing pad, battlements and boudoir locked the interpretation into a very literal representation. As soon as the Naughty Man started banging on about "daggers" and lineage, while standing in front of a washing machine and toting a big machine gun, the gap between Shakespeare's words and this contemporary, relevant reading (Macbeth being involved in some clash with Islamic militants) became too wide. The literal and the metaphorical could not hold.

Meanwhile, Boris and Sergey's Vaudevillian Adventure went to town on the disjuncture between the puppet's self-determination and the presence of six puppeteers keeping them going.

Inevitably, I haven't got to the bottom of this one yet. Earlier today, I was walking around Glasgow listening to Public Enemy. In my head, I was being Chuck D in rage mode, knowing that I was really just a shabby critic rushing to interview a dancer at Scottish Ballet. Yet in some way, I held both states in my attention, ready to either act like  Chuck, and threaten the stability of social order with a few well-placed words, or return to Gareth, and help an old lady with directions to the shops.

It's the gap there, and the gap between the real and the potential on the stage, that allows magic to flourish.

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