Wednesday, 21 November 2012

I hate theatre. Not really

If it didn't provide me with an overwhelming sense of purpose and meaning, and save me from sitting alone at home in a cold flat of an evening, I'd hate theatre. When I am not sitting in the dark listening to an encounter group lambast for imagined crimes (Ring at Tramway) or being lectured on the psychology of patriarchy (Bluebeard during Sonica), I am being transported to bleak industrial universes (Tales of Magical Realism, part 2) or sharing an Irish Jew's midlife crisis (Ulysses at the Tron). It's not surprising that I have multiple critical personalities: the stage is a life-lesson in the fictional nature of identity.

Theatre criticism is a thankless task. Well, it feels thankless after reading Charlie Brooker's Screen Burn. Bitter? Of course I'm bitter. When Brookner attacks a reality television show with a particularly florid simile, comparing, say, the host's personality to that of a too authentic Jimmy Saville look-alike, it's likely that more than half a dozen people know what he is talking about. When I describe an event that has made me reconsider the entire basis of reality (let's say, VSPRS by Les Ballets C de la B), it just sounds like I am making shit up.

Brooker's criticism is instructive though: he made his name for his brutality and uncompromising hatred of bad television. Unlike Brookner, I never need to wade through a sea of garbage, picking out the used condoms that masquerade as celebrities and swallowing the unprocessed human excrement which is the raw material for most soap opera plots. Even the worst theatre is better than a solid episode of TV drama. Sure, both can suffer from actors who studied under foresters rather than voice coaches, and the scripts can honk when the writer decides to try capturing a character that either has no analogie in reality or comes from a different social background. But the physical immediacy of theatre gives it a short-cut to emotional connection.

Brooker treats the people on TV as two dimensional caricatures, incapable of feeling the pain of being compared to abyssal trench monsters or threatened with cartoon violence (if Brookner directed his reviews against a politician, some zealous member of the secret services would have discreetly offed him round the back of The Guardian offices by now). It's no accident that he stopped being so vicious around the time he started making TV himself. He admitted it himself: suddenly, they were real people.

This is where theatre can't compete: it completely fails to dehumanise the performers, creating instead a community in the audience - even sitting in the dark, listening to headphones, Ring still feels like a communal, shared experience - and a strange connection between the actors and the watchers. It's why the NTS' Macbeth was such a hit. Alan Cumming, in person, on the stage, radiates a presence that can't be filmed.

Of course, being a Platonist, I have my problems with live theatre: these people are not only lying, they are seducing my sympathies. The allegory of the cave is often read as a predictive warning about the power of TV, but its moral panic about delusion was more likely modeled on Plato's reaction to tragedy. Leaving aside my usual insistence that Plato was joking, his sophistic arguments against theatre at least do it justice. Theatre can play around with emotions in a way that TV can only rarely achieve.

That's why I would probably hate theatre, if I didn't love it. Not because it is too much work to appreciate, although it does demand some serious attention. It's an emotional journey - even watching a shit work evokes fear and pity, usually for the poor actors - that is ultimately fraudulent. And it doesn't even offer the luxury of allowing the critic to be vicious about the work. They've been presented as real people.

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