Nov 12, 2007

Louis Armstrong is a Big Fat Liar.

"We have all the time in the world" Louis Armstrong once famously sung on the soundtrack to the much-maligned post-Connery Bondathon On Her Majesty's Secret Service (So, George Lazenby isn't a good Bond, but you try following Sean Connery - you'll feel like Barry Island after a weekend at Disney World.) Armstrong was obviously a big fat liar. There is no time and so much to comment on.

First off there's Jay Rayner's scandalously rubbish article in the Observer this weekend. I mean what is it about Food Critics and knowing absolutely nothing about theatre, or indeed Britain.
We can argue long and hard about the political hue of New Labour's economics, but only those on the very fringes of the debate could deny that the establishment is now both liberal and left of centre. Even the Tories have been drawn towards the consensus, with an increasingly touchy-feely social policy which makes the old Conservative grandees look like bigots (which is what too many of them were). Yet where is the theatre that challenges that liberal consensus, which makes those of us who consider ourselves a part of it think a little? Where is the theatre of the right?
He opines, marvelling at his own contrariness - look at me, he seems to say, an outsider looking in at theatre and seeing what none of them can see.

It brought to mind, for me, Stephen Colbert's staggering brilliant (and almost Shakespearean in its tragedy - Lear's Fool, jigging and joking hopelessly while the lords carry on regardless) performance at the White House Correspondent's Dinner, in which he intoned "We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in "reality." And reality has a well-known liberal bias."

That seems to be about the extent of Rayner's piercing inquiry into the state of theatre in this country. Bravely seeking an imbalance in reportage where none exists. Enslaved to the redundant notion of a binary politics that he understood when he was fresh out of University in the 80s. Everyone in theatre has certain liberal standards (namely tolerance, a dislike of racism/sexism/our Labour government lying to us), so this must be a conspiracy? People are no longer illiberal (bigoted, intolerant...) and this is a bad thing? While he's about it, drunk on his anachronistic, oppositional, red/blue notions of politics, how about he takes on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, another product of this famed false liberal consensus. Where are those voices raised against that piece of boring, predictable consensus thought? You don't need an opposite to make people think. Often, as Crossfire in the US has undoubtedly proved, this is the very worst way of asking people to think.

And what is the one fig leaf he keeps raising to conceal the modesty of his flaccid argument? Where is the play saying that Multiculturalism is a bad thing? I'm sorry, what - you want a play that isn't racist, yet criticises the embrassing (or indeed, just the tolerance) of a myriad of cultural groups within British society? How would this work - sure, you could critic the way that multiculturalism possibly breeds a culture of oppositional, close-knit communities, that can frequently become hostile towards one another, but how is this an argument of the right? What else can he want - Enoch Powell: The Musical ("They're stealing our work/the Pole and the Turk/and the rivers of blood run deeper every day...")?

And as too many people to mention have already pointed out - there's a 'right wing politics' (individualist, conservative... even capitalist?) latent in the form of so many of the musicals that litter our stages that simply because there aren't angry young things demanding tighter controls on abortion and the sanctity of marriage from the stages of our studio theatres, that doesn't mean that theatre is shameless a red-wash going on under our snooty, liberal (spat out - like Fox news does) noses.

Anyway. I'm not the only one that feels like a whinge, Chris Goode has churned out this fascinating interrogation of Michael Billington's latest attempt to prove the old Nazi adage about a lie repeated often enough.
theatre, at the moment, is in an extraordinarily fluid state. But there has to be some way of combining the kind of interactive experience that young audiences crave with the emotional resonance of a writer's vision: otherwise, all you get is sensory titillation.
This is, it must be noted, is the third time that Billington has repeated this very same adage in print about the last month, all with particular reference to Punchdrunk (who Chris eruditely points out, he enjoys using as a stick to beat a particular mode of theatre of which they are entirely unrepresentative). Here he is in his review ofPunchdrunk's 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 drama.
And here he is, popping up a week later in an article about his own book:
It's like being invited to a mad party but, while I found it fascinating, it strikes me as a pleasurable diversion from the main business of theatre, which is to grapple with social reality and change our perspective of the world.
Now, I've taken a couple of swipes at his dismissal of any theatre that isn't overtly political as lacking content, but Chris gets really stuck in to some far bigger and more difficult questions raised by Billington and Cooke's conversation. It's pointless quoting - you'll just have to go and read the whole thing through.

I've mentioned in the past the ways in which Site-Specific is a term simplified by the press for their own not-necessarily malicious (but not necessarily-not-malicious) ends.
The prefix site-specific allows people to maintain the notion that the resurgence of a myriad of theatrical forms that break with the conventions of the (predominantly Victorian) auditorium is merely another new-fangled and eminently bracketable subdivision of straight theatre. A gimmick that will no doubt pass, allowing them to get on with the important task of complaining about the arrangement of the deck chairs on the titanic.
But as Chris points out, what this mis-labelling also does, is obscure both artists and audiences from what would be constituted by a piece that was genuinely site-specific. A piece that was a specific product of the site (or environment) in which it was created; the conjuring of a theatrical ghost out of the landscape the artists have chosen to engage with.

Stripped of this imperative, we are instead presented with groups such as Punchdrunk being constantly heralded as the torch holders for site-specific theatre when their decidely un-specific work takes pre-existing classic texts or stories and constructs a world for them that bears little or no relation to environment chosen to house them. Indeed the company go out of their way to obscure anything real that shatters their immersive world. I reiterate, this is no bad thing. It just isn't site-specific. And while they are heralded, criticised and imitated in equal measure (while those fathers of site specific theatre like Mike Pearson struggle to get their staggeringly brilliant work published by any academic publisher) for a crime (or a genre) they didn't commit, no wonder the 'revolutionary potential' of the genre has rarely been fulfilled. As Chris states:
So no wonder Cooke can welcome -- and has welcomed -- with open-arms the notion of site-specificity; in the state in which it comes to him, there's absolutely no reason why site-specific work should disturb the status quo as regards the sacrosanct power of the single author.
Or, I would add, (coming back to my earlier post on site-specificity) the power of the Theatre Industry to churn out centralised, mass-marketable, long-running theatrical spectaculars that stagnate theatre within buildings and forms that are becoming increasingly out-dated.

But when haven't the superficial signifiers of 'upstream' work been appropriated for conservative, consumable mainstream forms? From Dada and Surrealism we are left with a bric-a-brac of fashionable outsider paraphenalia (old poscards, broken dolls, lace, vintage patterned fabric...) that adorns the covers of major-label indie albums and popular Hollywood films and seemed wearily nostalgic and meaningless to people like Allan Kaprow in the 60s. And yet the whole of the hip, trend-setting areas of East London are still in thrawl to this kind of dated, dirty-bourgeois aesthetic. While this detritus floated downstream, those people upstream (like Kaprow) started rebuilding and restructuring - Site-specific Art was born out of Minimalism. And Happenings were born out of site-specific Art and site-specific theatre... I think you can see where I'm going with this.

At present then we may feel like we are clutching at those hopeful fragments like site-specific theatre that are floating eagerly into the awaiting arms of Billington and Cooke, but possibly we're just between moments, desperately seeking an impetus (or a funding body) that will re-animate the upstream elements in theatre and render those forms that the mainstream is busy playing with (or, more accurately, playing with the box it came in), if not an irrelevance, then, at least, not as important as it still feels at the moment.

I also just want to flag up Chris' response to another oft-repeated untruth closely related to Billington's sensory titillation - that which states that 'devised theatre' is always flabby and self indulgent:
I agree that a lot of "devised" work is unsatisfactory, but actually it's most often unsatisfactory for exactly the same reasons that a piece of conventional literary theatre made with the same lack of analytical rigour would be unsatisfactory. There is a real problem with devising becoming a set of orthodoxies, as it now is; it's badly and vaguely taught, and groups who aren't aware of the different aesthetic and ideological parameters of devising as a practice will inevitably end up replicating the synthetic vanilla ghastliness of third-rate literary performance. It's not devising that's at fault there, it's badness.

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