Aug 30, 2007

Goodbye, Berlins

Marcel Berlins used part of his Guardian column yesterday to bluster in fine drunk-uncle-uncle-at-Christmas-dinner style about all these damned plays "based on" films.
How dare they take a great work of art and mangle it into some other format, for which it was not designed and envisaged... I suspect the very words "based on", so often the precursor of a work that demeans the original.
Now without getting at all hyperbolic, for me this is exactly the kind of preciousness and reverence that is creatively retarding the whole of Western civilisation.

No work of art is wholly original, no work of art is created in a vacuum. Artist's must be given the freedom (afforded to everyone from Shakespeare to Bob Dylan) to beg, borrow and steal stories, melodies, memories, one-liners - in short anything they can get their grubby, underpaid hands on in their pursuit of greatness. This kind of instinctive dislike of anything "based on" anything else is as dangerous as the encroachment of the dark knights of copyright theft on the health and well-being of the artistic community. (at this stage I'd recommend you go and watch this fascinating 20 minute documentary on musical copyright and the 'Amen Loop' the world's most important 6-second drum loop)

If you like the original then treasure it, value it by all means, but understand that what follows is a new work of art in a new medium. Have the good sense to view it as a discrete entity. The original still exists for Christ's sake - Berlins talks as if they've made the Young Vic's version of All About My Mother from the dismembered remains of every print of Almodovar's original film.

But then, a couple of brandies with Christmas pudding later, Berlins is off again on a completely different (but equally bonkers) track:
Yet I don't object to plays made into films, of which there are thousands, many of them clearly better in their new guise. Nor do I have any problems with stage musical adaptations of movies. But film dramas turned into plays have, until recently, been uncommon. I wish they had remained so. It is a lazy way out for a theatre. It saves the trouble of commissioning new plays from playwrights... it's also a negation of what theatres are supposed to stand for. I get particularly annoyed when Britain's most eminent theatres - the National (public money) and Old Vic included - stoop to the practice. They, above all, should be dedicated to developing and performing original works by playwrights with their own ideas rather than resort to material from the movies.
And note before I get on to the rest, that rancid old chestnut being hurled in Nicholas Hytner's direction again - you, with all of your Public Funding, how dare you not do exactly what I think you ought to do?

The main problem, however, is that Berlins is labouring under (and seemingly being crushed by) the misapprehension that theatre stands for something. It does not. It is a vast, staggeringly wide and unfathomably deep ocean of conflicting ideas, artists, forms, styles and philosophies. It is not a production line for the development of New Playwrights. It is not a medium in which sole possession of ideas or creativity belongs to the guy with the pen in his hand.

Some of the most startling thoughtful and creative artists working today are not writers. Kneehigh's A Matter of Life and Death, 'based on' the Powell and Pressburger movie, being the best example Berlins could have come up with to prove my point - a fascinating, brave and thoughtful piece of theatre, bristling with more ideas and insight in its staging than a dozen tired new plays about polygamy or middle class dinner parties. The point being that the words written down on the page do not have to be the sole (or even the primary) source of ideas, argument and creativity within the theatre. As Lyn Gardner identifies, one of the most interesting and challenging pieces of theatre at the Edinburgh Festival this year, had almost no words at all.

And, besides, what Berlins also seems to have failed to notice is that 80-90% of the theatre churned out by the two institutions he mentions is not new writing at all but restaging of old plays, something which is, apparently, absolutely fine.

1 comment:

Andrew Haydon said...

I got rather carried away replying to this: