Friday, 10 October 2014

Visual theatre - oh, the script.

In the good old days, cooking up some theatre was simple. Take a script - any script, but make sure it's either a classic (probably Shakespeare, although yet another translation from the Greek will suffice) or New Writing - add a director. Stir in as many actors as necessary and available, and garnish with a rudimentary set, sound and lighting score. For a spicier version, make sure that either director or one actor is a celebrity.

Somehow, this recipe sustained the appetite for drama until the 1960s. Rival menus would always appear - British vaudeville made mockery a side dish, and the European mime schools, notably Marcel Marceau, demonstrated that the word was not always essential. However, at least in the UK, the script was always the main course and revolutions in theatre always came from the authors - the Angry Young Men of the 1950s, the experiments of Peter Brook, even the wave of New Brutalists (Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill et al) showed a healthy respect for the written word.

It's possible that the dominance of the script is a mere historical accident. The preservation of some really good plays by the Greek masters and the impact of the printing press may have given the written word a greater status - certainly, a nostalgia for the past has been forming Western culture since the renaissance and the ability of a script to survive both encourages its re-interpretation and lends it status. But the brilliance of Shakespeare's language, which often blinds audiences to his patchy plots and irrelevance, has also given the script a powerful sponsor.

The rise of alternative approaches to making theatre in the late twentieth century does, however, have an ancestry. Other cultures, notably Japan and Indian, had performance that was not so easily divided into the dual categorisation of dance and drama. Noh uses masks within a strict code, and Kathakali combines a language of gesture and choreography to tell a story without words. Even Greek plays had plenty of song and dance - only the details have not survived so successfully as the scripts.

One easy way to mark the beginning of the contemporary resistance to the script is to take the Dada cabaret of 1916 as the year zero. Not only does this link nicely with a reading of contemporary art's evolution, it makes the genesis of physical and visual theatres part of an aesthetic revolution. Dada attacked the pieties of a civilisation that was about to butcher a generation, and language, meaning, artistic formats, morality were all going to get it in the neck.

Since all definitions are relative, it's worth setting visual theatre up in opposition to something. In this case, visual theatre is the plucky revolutionary questioning the hegemony of the text.

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