Friday, 26 September 2014

What is Theatre?

The 'cancellation' of Exhibit B has had at least one positive side-effect: I've been introduced to the eloquent writing of Lemm Sissay. It has also forced me to think about why I (instinctively) oppose censorship.

Sissay believes that the campaign to block Exhibit B began with Sara Myer's 'gut reaction' to images of the performance, and fails to recognise the complexity of both the event and the possible reactions. He also worries about the willingness of community leaders to speak on behalf of their communities, as if they are a monolithic unit of thought.

Despite Akala's equal eloquence, I'm with Sissay. Akala makes strong claims about the inherent racism of liberals (I agree with that), but his own work, in The Hip Hop Shakespeare Company, is a fine example of how the past can be appropriated for contemporary expression. I find the idea of hip-hop Shakespeare tedious - as a Public Enemy fan, I fear it treads the line of trying to make street art legitimate through association with high art, rather than acknowledging its intrinsic worth: but reading it as a subversion of Shakespeare transforms it into a post-colonial resistance to the presumed neutrality of canonical texts.

(In other words, it reveals the hidden assumption that Shakespeare is 'better' than rap, and challenges the morality behind the Bard's poetry, which is, by historical accident, a bit racist.)

However, my cry that 'freedom of speech is freedom or death' turns out not just to be a crib from Chuck D, but a consequence of my understanding of what theatre can be. I know I am in that argument with Plato, and this is subject to change, but it is time for a big statement....

Theatre - like all art - encourages an encounter between the audient and itself. Good comparisons include 'a mirror' or 'a meditation session' in which the audience, through engagement with the Text (script, choreography, production, painting, whatever) can experience the reflection of their identity, and, in a safe space, rehearse responses to situations. 

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