Sep 20, 2007

Joined Up Thinking

Dear Reader,

In a rather foolhardy attempt at what I think I once heard called joined-up thinking (but in all likeliness is going to end up more closely resembling a bunch of separate ideas barely held together by a rather scraggy piece of thinkstring) I'm going to try and pull together some ideas from previous posts into a giant theoretical quilt, to keep you warm as the first winter winds begin whistling through streets still waiting for Summer to arrive.

A Disappearing Number, Complicite's recent maths-themed orgy of digital-projections at the Barbican, has caused a fascinating rift between the main-stream media's lavish praise (in The Guardian's review of the reviews the show received 8 across the board apart from one rather sheepish 4 out of 10 from, I think, The Sunday Times) and a decidedly colder and noticeably more underwhelmed reception here in the Mean Streets of the Internet. Compere and contrast:
All these ideas are realised with Complicite's customary elan by the nine-strong company and Michael Levine's design. A spinning screen whisks us from Chennai to Cambridge. A white-sheeted bed turns into an evocation of Greenland glimpsed from an airplane window [...] Even maths duffers will respond warmly to a show that confirms theatre's ability to make the sciences manifest. (**** Michael Billington, The Guardian)
The piece seemed to quickly resolve itself into what was effectively a cavalcade of scene changes. It felt as if hardly any scene really had a chance to really get going before it was cut off. As a result, our relationship to the characters felt continually on hold, deferred. Ultimately it was this distance that really finished me off. (Andrew Haydon)
Something is always happening, thanks to projections and mime which mean that the world bustles and races across our sightlines: Madras streets, trains, planes, Cambridge quads and high tables, even a Greenland iceberg that suddenly becomes a bed. It’s bravura stuff, perhaps sometimes overdecorative, yet also more than that. (**** Benedict Nightingale, The Times)
Sitting in the middle rows of the stalls I have rarely felt so distant from the performers in front of me, they seemed no more real than the images of Bombay or Cambridge flickering on the screens behind them. I certainly marvelled at this staggering televisual universe, enjoyed its careful teasing apart and soldering together of ideas and histories and stories, but undoubtedly, I never felt a part of it. (Umm... me - is this bad form - quoting oneself?)

Complicite's artistic director Simon McBurney has once again come up with a thrilling and beguiling show that combines high-tech stage effects with enormous heart, whisking the audience from Cambridge during the Great War to present-day India with the help of video film and an evocative score by Nitin Sawhney. (**** Charles Spencer The Telegraph)
We went with high hopes and it’s had some great reviews, but after a strong start it quickly descends into a tableaux, intercut with banal ITV drama about 40 somethings having a miscarriage. The only fully realised character is the Indian lady at the other end of the phone in a Bangalore call centre. Never mind the maths, clearly it was all a bit too hard trying to understand the enigmatic mathematician they claim is the heart of their story, so he pretty much never says anything! (The West End Whingers)
So what does this tell us? Well according to Michael Billington it should show us the 'Independence of mind' that professional theatre critics live or die by. Go back and read those again, you'll see what he means.

Much as I hate to disagree with Mr Billington (as you all well know), I believe there's more to this rift than the fact that he and his colleagues are a good deal more focused, and well-written than the likes of us scruff (as if the only reason we had anything bad to say was that we all just kept on writing until something negative came out, like shaking out the flaky fragments at the bottom of a cereal packet).

For a start it may have something to do with the fact that the A-string critics were among the 10% of people who were able to have a decent seat in the cavernous, obstacle-littered monstrosity that is the Barbican's main auditorium and that we, minor critics and paying members of the public, found ourselves not so meticulously catered for. Maybe, after all, this is the real reason for professional theatre criticism - to inform the rest of the audience exactly what is going on in the parts of the stage we can't see from where we're sitting.

And yet there is still something more to this - a growing, nagging dissatisfaction that doesn't seem to have quite reached the ivory-lacquered stall seats occupied by those wot write properly and don't waste their evenings with 'informal letters' on the subject of theatre.

In my review I mentioned a quotation from academic Victor Turner:
To look at itself a society must cut out a piece of itself for inspection. To do this it must set up a frame within which images and symbols of what has been sectioned off can be scrutinized, assessed, and, if need be, remodelled and rearranged.
Now, I used to see this as an almost definitive definition of Theatre, covering everything from the trivial and diverting to the King Lear's and Waiting for Godot's of this world. More recently, however, I'm not sure. There's something about its terms, like those with which the major critics lavished praise on Complicite's show (and indeed, like the show itself), that seems, fundamentally, outdated.

The problem for me is that Turner goes back to that metaphor of theatre being like a painting. Theatre happens within a frame. Within this frame there is nothing real - merely images and symbols of the real world, constructed within the safe and neutral space of the theatre stage.

'I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and this is all you need for an act of theatre to be engaged.' I believe someone said once, rather famously, in another quotation that has been taken up as some kind of First Principal of theatre.

Except that (and for those who have been paying attention this is where the joined-up bit comes in), as I recently stated, there is no such thing as an Empty space. The comfortable boundaries that we put up between the real world and the world of the theatre (the edges of the empty space, the applause the bowing that assures us that all the Theatre is out of the way and done with) only serve to create the illusion that there is some empty space, some blank canvas, some neutral 100 square feet of stage in which the real world is converted into symbols and metaphors for us (or specifically for the All Powerful writer or director) to play with.

Reality does not cease to exist at the edges of the empty stage. An example of this came up recently in a piece by Alex Ferguson on Told by an Idiot's Casanova at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, a show in which (as you may have noticed from the nudgenudgewinkwink flyers designed entirely it seems to send a shiver through the kind of theatre going middle-class gentleman who scorns Sun and Zoo Magazine readers while being happy to sit through endless BBC montages of slow-mo close-ups female tennis players arses) history's greatest lover is played by a woman. In an article in the Guardian the company admit that a lot of the sex scenes in the show were edited out as, regardless of the position adopted, they still made Hayley Carmichael (playing Casanova), look like a Victim. In response to this Ferguson asks some very interesting questions.
All of this makes it seem like the stage is an aggressively male gendered space, and maybe it is. Of course, in the real world we can't fix the effects of several thousand years of patriarchy in an instant, but the theatre isn't the real world - in's much better than that, and in the theatre space we can do whatever we damn well please. But in the theatre nothing is easy. Is it a theatrical problem or a broader cultural one which also manifests itself in the theatre? Are the structures of power inscibed into the theatres themselves or is it that they are etched into the psyches of audience and actor alike?
In answer to Ferguson's last question what I would suggest it is undoubtedly the latter, that this demonstrates real-world values washing over the edge of the stage and colouring everything that happens on it.

After all, if in your publicity material you specifically play upon the longing male gaze and the objectified female (if it had been a production with a male Casanova would we have had a picture of arse on the flyers? No, probably a picture of his head smirking to camera, in on the joke) and you probably also have that image on the programmes handed to people as they enter the auditorium, how can you not expect the whole history of the male invention of woman as sex object (from restoration comedy, through Marilyn Monroe and back again) to cause the people watching (and the people acting) to feel as though the woman having sex on stage simply couldn't be in control.

We need new models for theatre, and new definitions. The most interesting theatre happening today does not rely on the notion that it is playing with symbols and images in a closed-off space of theatre. It has a far more immediate, far less controlling relationship with it's environment.

This can happen through the direct relationship between a performer and her audience, or in the strange relationship between a performance and the world it describes.

It can also happen by discarding the stage all together - by moving from a model of theatre that happens in an enclosed space to a model that sees theatre as draped over the real world like a vale or a ghost. Interestingly, there are some fascinating examples of this type of theatre appearing later this year in same programme as A Disappearing Number. For example, Blast Theory's Rider Spoke will see audiences cycling around the barbican in what is part treasure hunt, part interactive game, part theatre, using the architecture of the city as its set.

And on the other side of town the Soho are launching what is by far the most fascinating thing I have seen them attempt - engaging with the location of the theatre (and the relationship that the local community has with it), Moonwalking in Chinatown will take audiences on a walk through the streets of Chinatown, meeting along the way local performers and professional actors in a way that sounds fascinatingly similar to our project in Kent though with an entirely different (and possibly vastly more interesting and significant) subject matter.

This for me is the kind of theatre that today feels valuable, fascinating and important. A theatre engaging with its location rather than cutting itself off from it. A theatre plays with the real world rather than with symbols and metaphors. After all, as Tim Etchells (of forced Entertainment) once said, 'Sometimes it seems as if all we have to do is gesture to the window and ask people to look.'


alexf said...

Hi Andrew

re - the publicity shot - i think it's much cleverer than you give it credit for. it's specifically evoking and subverting a famous image which does play upon the longing male gaze and the objectified female. i think its rather witty and clever in the clash of worlds that it evokes. i certainly don't look at it and just see an arse.

i wish i could comment more fully on everything else you're saying, but i'm trying to avoid reading anything about a dissapearing number until after i've seen it tonight.

Andrew Field said...

Hi Alex,

i'll be interested to see what you think of the complicite show.

I think you're right, the juxtaposition of worlds is wittier and cleverer than I give it credit for.

However, I think if anything, in a field of images (advertising) in which images of objectified (and invariably scantily clad) young women are so staggeringly omnipresent, I think it plays upon that context to create a historically ironic juxtaposition without doing anything much to subvert or undermine the kind of gaze that all images of this kind invite.

No it's not a particularly nasty or manipulative use of a lady's bum but it relies upon (and therefore is necessarily a part of) a culture of images in which women remain an object for a male gaze.

I think when we are so inundated by pretty shameless images of naked female bodies selling everything from men's magazines to vegetarianism, attempts to change this (which seems in part at least to be the aim of the show - to undermine/subvert these ideas)are not aided by a smidgeon of knowing irony and wealth of female flesh.

alexf said...

for the record, ADN made me angrier than anything i'd seen in the theatre for a very long time.

danbye said...

I'm going to see Casanova tonight. I'll let you both know what I think: perhaps a response will even mark the long-delayed return to my own blog, although everyone else is doing such good work I now feel a bit nervous.