Really, it is. Awful. And the main reason why it is so awful is because stage fighting (fighting on stage) has become Stage Fighting, a particularly annoying and pointless theatrical sub-industry. You can take courses in Stage Fighting, you can hire Stage Fighting ‘experts’ to come in and teach you how to Stage Fight. You can buy books on it.
And thus stage fighting becomes a skill, a technique in the actor’s repertoire, like juggling or ballet; another needless tool that the drama schools can use to convince theatre that acting is a job that can be taught. Except that stage fighting shouldn’t be like ballet. Stage fighting shouldn’t exist as a thing at all. The moment that stage fighting becomes a thing, with its own rules and techniques, it is instantly divorced from what it is there to represent, which is people fighting.
So unless we're watching a Disney Wild West Show or an Errol Flynn movie made flesh (both of which I assure you I am a huge fan of), when we see those familiar moves we are torn from whatever reality it is that the show is conjuring and treated to five minutes of the work of some mediocre stage combat expert, a peculiarly boring symbolic dance representing the act of fighting that invariably goes on far longer than it need do and adds precisely nothing to the event it parasitically feeds off.
Well, enough I say. Burn the books. Lock up the trainers. Unlearn those pulled punches and those staggering dull sword fighting routines.
But, then, all that done – what’s the alternative? When we stumble upon the words ‘they fight’ what’s to be done?
Well the first alternative is of course actual fighting, which although it does have a certain visceral urgency to it is liable to make long runs somewhat of a trial. And so it becomes the responsibility of directors to invent their own theatrical language. Just look at the choreography of Maxine Doyle, a scandalously overlooked part of what has become known as the Punchdrunk experience. Doyle has created a way of fighting that blends what is essentially dance with something more breathlessly unpredictable and spontaneous, and in doing so she imbues her fights with a dynamism (and a truthfulness) that goes way beyond the laboured faux-realism of so much stage combat. And even without the thrilling young dancers that Doyle so frequently has at her disposal, there is a message to take from this, that fighting on stage (as opposed to Stage Fighting) should be an element of and derived from the rest of the show, not an imported skill dropped into the show to fill a gap in the director’s imagination.And while we’re about it, I’m not too keen on stage guns either…