Mar 19, 2007

Attempts on Her Life (part the third (and last...))

This is, I utterly, utterly promise, the last time for a while that I will return Attempts on Her Life though I do so now not as an observer but as an observer of the observers.

Encore, in their typically bold and heartfelt piece, suggest that the production serves to underline tensions and divisions latent in our little theatre universe. Katie Mitchell and her company (like black clad Gavrillo Princips wielding cameras rather than hand grenades) have struck a blow for metaphysics, poetry and continental philosophy at (oh! horror of all horrors!) that bastion of the establishment the Royal National Theatre, and as a consequence all hell has broken loose. Quentin Letts, no doubt wearing nothing but a tattered military vest and a pair of Union Jack Y-fronts, has come out with all guns blazing, a Rambo-esque one-man-army, defending all that is decent and utterly moribund in theatre, ably supported by Michael Billington, swatting at metaphors that fizz over his head with his well worn copy of Look Back in Anger. As Encore put it;
when veiled threats are made to Nick Hytner over the production, when the level of abuse gets heated and personal, when the comments reveal not merely dislike but hatred, you know that you’re in the middle of a battle for the soul of our theatre.
And, fantastical critic imagery aside, I would tend to agree with encore's previously outlined (and consciously polarising) metaphysical vs. litteralist stance.

However, I am equally interested in how Attempts on Her Life reflects (or effects) another equally fascinating (and by no means unrelated) battle front that as been brewing in previous weeks in response to Edward Albee's well-publicised broadside at directors and companies for daring to imagine they should have some creative investment in the production of his plays. The arguments have been made most ably by George Hunka and Chris Goode, with the latter creating the useful distinction between playwriting and writing for theatre.

For me, the former suggests a narrow and innately limited (yet utterly prevalent) convention by which a text (often the result of one man tapping a keyboard furiously on his own in an attic somewhere) precedes and dictates the performance that is assumed, by Letts and those that moan of pretension and embellishment, to be nothing more than the act of politely realising the written text.

The latter however (writing for theatre) suggests a looser, broader definition. Writing could mean the creation of any kind of blueprint for a vaguely reproducible performance, whether this be writing lines on to a piece of paper or writing movements on the body.

Secondly, writing for theatre reasserts the primacy of the theatrical event in the act of writing theatre. During our audience with him, mentioned briefly by myself earlier, Bill Gaskill talked briefly about the functioning of the writer's group at the royal court in the 50s/60s. The most interesting point that he made was that everything that the writer's group did (whether it be Brecht, Stanislavsky or improvised mask work) was based on the writer’s actually getting up and performing. Hence they were always aware of the centrality of the medium (theatre) to whatever (or however) it was they were writing.

And here is the important point. This lauding of writing for theatre over playwriting does not seek to lock the doors of the theatre to the playwright. It merely re-emphasises that the writer is writing for performance, rather than the performance serving as a platform for the politics or posing of the writer.

In this context the criticism of Mitchell's involvement in Attempts on Her Life, ably defended by Encore, are very interesting. Crimp is clearly writing for theatre. As encore suggest, his text, like the texts of Sarah Kane, is innately incomplete. Its ambiguity, its elusiveness (or in the case of Kane's cleansed, its impossibility) demand collaboration with directors, performers, designers. Plays such as Crimps are only complete when their creativity is accompanied, supplemented and realised by the creative weight of the full apparatus of theatre.

David Eldridge (whose daring and hugely enjoyable Marketboy undoubtedly represents an engagement with the medium of performance, an instance of a talented writer writing for theatre) commented that, for him, in Attempts on Her Life it is 'the actor who is celebrated'. I would undoubtedly agree. Crimp's text is written for them, for performance in general and thus represents theatre at its most collaborative, its most immediate and its most powerful. It celebrates the medium rather than denigrating it, as Albee, Letts and others do when they assume that it should be nothing more than a capable manifestation of the written word.

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