Jun 3, 2007

My Last Word on the Subject (I promise...)

A lovely article in the Observer this morning from Nicholas Hytner in which he spends a little more time clarifying his position on the absurd brouhaha that he created a couple of weeks ago with a few undiplomatic words about some aging Caucasian theatre critics.

In the article he first takes back his particularly contentious argument regarding the institutional misogyny of theatre critics (thought he does imply that their is an undercurrent of it in their nonchalantly patronising references to naughty school girls and little miss Mitchells). Instead he focuses on the aspect of the debate that myself and others, including Encore and David Eldridge have been interested in - that the 5 nights a week theatre critic who has been in his (and it is always his) job for 30 years and who's seen '50 Hamlets' might have a limited frame of reference for more contemporary performance vocabularies that are as informed by Luis Bunuel or Ingmar Bergman as they are by George Bernard Shaw and George Devine.
The best new plays have always found fresh subject matter, but my experience now is that theatre makers are equally excited about breaching cultural barriers and experimenting in form. Their dialogue is often less with theatre than with other artforms.
Although Hytner goes on to suggest that the critics should go 'to the movies and to the opera' once in a while, this is merely the tip of very large iceberg. For example much of the work that we are now seeing tickling the main stream can be easily traced back to the American-led performance art scene (and its various happenings) that developed particularly around New York in the sixties. To site the most obvious example, in a work such as Richard Schechner's (in)famous Dionysus in 69 can be found the origins of work (site-specific theatre, physical theatre, devised ensemble performances...) that is nearly 40 years later still dismissed as gimmicky novelty.

As Hytner suggests, it is a question of perspective and vocabulary. And as performance art, cinema, opera, dance, carnival and whatever else you might care to mention continue to bleed into each other it is completely right that Hytner should seek to open the National's doors to the new theatrical forms that are a consequence of this exciting mix. If theatre is not to become, as Schechner once famously said, the 'string-quartet of the twenty-first century', a suffocating, nostalgic anachronism, it must remain open to engagement with these different ways of thinking and performing.

In this potentially joyous environment of cross-breeding and mutation, the hermetically sealed theatre critic, despite all their intelligence and experience, is never going to the right person to write about forms and styles and sensibilities that they still consider fundamentally alien to theatre.

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