Over and over again
Us v. Them
Over and over again
Africa, many, many years ago, before Doctor Livingstone had been presumed or anyone had decided it was a Heart of Darkness, was a continent constantly in motion. The tribes scattered across its unbordered lands were not static entities, defined by race or geography. You were not the member of a single group. Instead your collective identity was plural; you at once belonged to families, neighborhoods, communities, tribes; first comers were only defined in opposition to late comers, who, once someone else new arrived, were amalgamated into the first comers. Which is not to say this was paradise, people fought and people died. But it was an elegant, and universally understood system. That was, until white people arrived, with their flags and their guns, and their 'evolved' ideas about nationhood. And they didn't have a clue how this old system worked. And did they ever mess it up.
You see, in absence of any sense of understanding, and struggling to differentiate themselves from these heathens, they assumed that the tribal system in Africa was merely a less evolved version of our system in the west. They arbitrarily, and tragically/hilariously, assumed tribes were entirely separate entities, with a territory, a race, a past, an identity all of their own. And so, before they placed everyone in shackles, they placed everyone in brackets. You vs. you vs. you. And the massacres begun.
Because whenever you construct an opposition, its a) to simplify things and b) to cause conflict. Because we love dialectics and we love fighting.
Which brings me to Mr Billington. Mr Billington loves dialectics and he loves fighting. Nary a review goes by when he doesn't take the opportunity to point out the categories of theatre he is reinforcing. Take, for example, his review of Water by Filter, at the Lyric Hammersmith, which is begun not by any note on the show, but by this:
Devised theatre, at its worst, often leads to narrative and political flabbiness.And then there is this from another four star review, this time of The Masque of the Red Death:
I still see this kind of magical mystery tour as an alternative to, rather than a substitute for, conventional dramaAnd then, earlier this week freed from the straight jacket of actually having to review the shows he has been sent to review, he is allowed to truly mount his soap box in an exclusive tribute to his new book:
although the phrase "text-based theatre" has acquired a ludicrously pejorative ring, I still see the writer as the medium's creative mainspring. Collective research is important. But out of the dramatist's truculent solitude derives our portrait of a nation still struggling, after all these years, to discover its true identity.Piece by agenda-driven piece Mr Billington is building his brackets. On one side he places "text-based theatre" and the lone writer, tippy tapping her/his way into the annuls of real theatre. And on the other side he has a cartload of "experimental" forms governed and marshaled by that most beloved of umbrella terms "Devised Theatre". But of course, it would be churlish of me to suggest that Mr Billington is forging this dichotomy in truculent solitude. Here is Charlie Spencer from in the Telegraph, on, again, Water:
In a weak year for new plays, devised theatre has led the way, with first Complicite and now a company called Filter coming up with work that dazzles the eye, enchants the ear, and stimulates both the mind and heart.And you'll notice here that Mr Spencer speaks of these productions with nothing but heartfelt praise to lavish on them (after all, even Mr Billington gave Water a four star review).
No, what is happening here is something far more interesting. Like people have done with so many movements before, they have given to a smorgasbord of shifting, undefinable theatrical forms that they don't understand, a name - Devised Theatre. And in this way they can simplify it, and ghettoise it.
They can dismiss a desire, a need, a gallant attempt by dramatists, directors, writers, actors, artists and theatre makers to challenge the forms in which they are working. They can take universal creative development, an attempt at finding new (more effective) modes of political and personal expression, and reduce it to a movement, a fad, in opposition to (and unable to replace) the static theatrical form with which they are comfortable.
But of course, it isn't as simple as this. People haven't discovered a new trick, learnt a new language - this isn't a theatrical gold rush to mine every last nugget of this novelty form "Devised Theatre" before they shuffle back to real theatre.
No - the term "devised theatre", and the resulting productions it has come to represent, is not something happening in a corner. It is one visible facet of a larger sensibility in theatre, affecting and encompassing a myriad of theatrical forms.
In order to show you what I mean, let's quickly take these terms apart shall we.
Devised Theatre. What does this mean, devised theatre? It's not improvised theatre, so someone must have written it down. Complicite have scripts. Nowadays they are mainly the product (and bear the hallmarks) of the companies artistic director, Simon Mcburney. Water certainly has a very definite script, with echoes of the work of David Greig. So does it mean work that is the product of a devising process?
And this devising process, it has no controller, no transcriber, no editor? Is the script just the vast, unwieldy verbiage of a year or so of thinking, vomitted up on the page? How do playwrights get their ideas. Do they talk to their friends, have read-throughs of scenes - steal from things they've heard, friends and passers by? Is truculent solitude the necessary state? So Brenton and Hare - they're not writers. Or David Eldridge on Market Boy, he's not a writer. Or David Greig, again - sometimes he's a writer and sometimes he's not.
And what about theatre devised from a pre-existing text? Like Inspector Sand's Hysteria, based on TS Eliot's poem. What is the difference between a version of The Wasteland and a version of Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life - both offer a startling ambiguous text, that the director is required to piece together, to devise a show from. One is a poem, one is a play text - so one is devised and the other is not?
What about Chris Goode and (much as Chris may flinch at this coupling) Anthony Neilson. Writers, devisors, directors... Where is the tribe to put them in?
Text Based Theatre. Is not every show based on a text. Not necessarily a written text, maybe a text written on the body - in movements, or actions. In this context is not every text worked over, slaved over, edited, refined, dreamt on in solitude by one part or another. The work of Derevo - a text in movement undoubtedly written only by the companies head Anton Adasinsky - do they create text-based theatre? For better or for worse he spends years labouring over his pieces, believes them to be incredibly refined, political, exact. Is he writing text-based-theatre, simply in a language that Billington doesn't understand?
What these pieces represent - from people like David Greig, David Eldridge, Martin Crimp, Simon McBurney, Derevo and Filter, is a desire. A desire to find their own language, to explore their medium. What they all represent is mainstream theatre remaining vital. Mainstream theatre moving forward. Because while Mr Billington desperately scratches his line in the sand, theatre makers are waltzing round him in circles. But while they may not notice his line, his readers undoubtedly do. And this is something that must be addressed.
There is another, untouched upon element of this constructed divide. Another reason that Mr Billington seems ever more keen to assert that it is Us vs Them. And that is that the them he constantly posits as 'devised', 'experimental' and 'new' is anything but. Filter and Complicite are hardly cutting edge - in fact remove the label and they are as mainstream as you like, crafting scripted narrative dramas for large proscenium auditoriums. Punchdrunk, with their versions of canonical texts and their largely passive 'masked' audience following (not leading) the action around a contained environment, are hardly representative (and certainly don't claim to be) of most interactive, audience-led or site-specific theatre.
And yet if these companies can be happily positioned as one side traditional/experimental text-based/devised dichotomy that constitutes contemporary theatre, people working beyond and outside of these constructed categories are left in suffocating silence. Because Mr Billington et al. are already confronting (and dismissing) what they have decided is the other side of theatre. Mainstream theatre has had its fill. Their boxes have been ticked and their consciouses are clean. Everything else can be fed to the professors.
(N.B. Slightly edited as written in awful hurry...)