Sep 5, 2007

The Messy Space

There are few anachronisms quite so pleasurable as a crumbling auditorium. The velveteen opulence, the gaudy grandeur masquerading as sophistication, the musty smell of wasted years and the gentle snores of a well dressed man napping in the darkness. Oh the Faded Glamour. There's nothing brings a song to my heart like it.

So you can imagine my response when I read that that Young Turk, that famed eviscerater of traditions, that reckless theatrical radical Michael Billington in his latest article advocates either doing them up or tearing them down altogether...
So what do we do about old theatres, not least those in London's West End, many of which are in a state of visible disrepair? I recently advocated that lottery money should provide the £250m the Theatres Trust says is needed to make the buildings safe and attractive.
No I say! Safety be damned, and as for attractiveness - there is no circle of hell low enough.

Billington seems to advocate an almost clinical formula for the ideal auditorium. A perfect, comfortable, unobtrusive space - a blank canvas to be painted on by assorted theatrical maestros. All of which suggests that the best theatre is produced (and presented) in some kind of vacuum. A neutral environment, a space that is entirely empty, or I suppose you might say, an empty space, in which every last detail is provided by the masterful creators.

For me however this simply isn't the case. I loathe the clinical neutrality of the Cottlesloe and the Young Vic, am bored to tears by the Soho and if I have to see one more show in either auditorium at the Trafalgar Studios I may well end it all. For me theatre is not like art at all, and the best theatre is not created on a blank canvas. Theatre is, if anything, a renaissance fresco, graffiti, or something somewhere in between. The best theatre is created in the friction between the art and reality, in that murky grey area between the imaginary and the all-too-real.

Theatres shouldn't be the ideal forum in which to display a work of art. In their decrepitude or their opulence or their damned inappropriateness, they should fight the imposition upon them, they should challenge the use that is being made of them. This is what makes the perfect theatre space for me as an audience member, being forced two hold two contradictory ideas, two inconceivable places (even universes) in my head at the same time - the musty auditorium or the crumbling town hall or the subterranean vault and the impossible theatrical world conjured by the piece.

This is also, I feel, what makes for an exciting, challenging creative environment. A space that is still very much part of the real world. A space that demands that you, as a theatre maker, acknowledge it, think about it, incorporate it in some way, even overcome it.

In their day the two most exciting venues in the city were The Royal Court and The Theatre Royal Stratford East - which also at that time happened to be two of the most run down, miserable, leaky auditorium in London. George Devine and Joan Littlewood both loathed their respective miserable relics and yet they proved the most fertile, exciting environments for young theatre makers in the whole of the city. Now of course this had as much to do with these two crumbling theatres being the only place these already talented artists were actually able to put on work, but I genuinely believe that the physical presence of these fading theatres made a significant contribution (both for the artists and the audience) to the power of the shows you could see there. John Arden (or it might have been Arnold Wesker) even famously wrote a play that deliberately incorporated the sound of the London underground that can be so frequently heard rumbling through the Royal Court.

Today however after years of Lottery money being plowed into renovating our theatres to the point of sterilisation, there are few places left that have such an uncomfortable presence. This (rather than some spurious notion of novelty or gimmickry) is perhaps why some of the most exciting young theatre makers in London have collected around the SHUNT vaults - because it offers them a space that confronts them, challenges them; a space that demands the audience acknowledge it while at the same time being transported somewhere else entirely.

And in an ideal world I hope that when the crumbling theatres of the West End finally become unusable for big budget musicals, rather than having lottery money strip them and sanitise them and make them over like some fading Hollywood star , maybe we'll fill them full theatre-makers instead, providing them with a new environment to explore, and a new (and very messy) space to make theatre in.

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