Monday, 29 February 2016

What is Theatre for, eh?

An idea that comes up again and again - especially when I interview Andy Arnold - is that theatre has a special place for the discussion of public concerns. Whether this existed in the earliest days of staged performance, I can't say (if it did, the Athenians of the fifth century had a few issues with patricide and mother-fucking). Of course, I think Diderot started it off. 

His writing on theatre - especially when he tries to explain why his plays are quite good, actually - emphasises the important of reflecting the worries of society. He invented a new genre, known as the drame, to make this point.

Even Kenneth 'Whiplash' Tynan, patron saint of critics and swearing on TV, argued with Ionesco that theatre is always political (the example he gave of how far political decisions impinge on life was, inevitably, in the purchase of cigarettes). He was not keen on what Arnold calls 'existential theatre', which privileged existential angst over more specific anguishes. 

While I am uncomfortable with my responses to The Citizens' recent Endgame, I believe that my complaint against its familiarity reflects my assumption that theatre ought to challenge the audience. Beckett is obviously a master playwright, and Endgame's vision of a post-apocalyptic world straddles the divide between abstraction and more specific paranoia (a hostile universe and a nuclear winter respectively). Although Dominic Hill did a solid job, getting great performances and playing out the script with clarity, I thought that Beckett's nightmare is too familiar, and draws heavily on 1950s' fears. 

The Beckett estates' conservatism on matters of interpretation - manifested in Hill's production - leaves Endgame as a period piece, lacking the immediacy of Hill's direction of, say, Crime and Punishment. It allows the audience off the hook, to read the event as performance rather than a critique. That is, it's easy to eulogise the actors, enjoy the words and revel in the dystopian rather than embrace the challenge of a play that reflects contemporary alienation.

Back with Andy Arnold, who recently directed Beckett's Happy Days: his choice of Mike Barlett's Cock was a far more bracing confrontation with the audience. Given its frank discussion of sexual identity, it did respond to modern dilemmas. Its basic premise - a man torn between male and female lovers - reveals a society more comfortable with observing same-sex relationships, but also going beyond a simple message of positivity. 

Despite sharing a certain bleakness with Beckett, it conforms to Diderot's ideal of the bourgeois comic tragedy. There were laughs, but the protagonist ended up alone on stage, the darkness slowly encroaching.

Cock was more uncomfortable than Endgame. It is set in a familiar domesticity which becomes more sinister than Beckett's blasted planet both because it fails to recognise wider catastrophes (the characters do reflect on their self-absorption) and it is more difficult to 'other' the characters' experience. Most people haven't existed in a post-apocalypse twilight. They have had dinner parties and worried about their ambitions and desires.

However, my reading of both plays is predicated on the assumption that 'theatre ought to challenge'. It's a variation on Diderot's claim: contemporary social relevance does not need to be provocative. One function of the critic might be to recommend productions - hence the star rating. My reviews are aimed at audiences who are, at least, in sympathy with my assumption. Endgame and Cock were well worth the time and money, although Gareth Nichol's Blackbird at The Citizens ticked the box harder.

Whether the purpose of theatre is to annoy the hell out of the audience is not necessary proven... the production of Cleansed, which is apparently ever so shocking, has bought back some public debate about the acceptability of on-stage violence. And sometimes, as Vanishing Point are currently showing in The Destroyed Room, breaking the format can be a powerful way of shoving the shit right in the audience's mush.

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