Dec 5, 2007

A Poor Man's Art

I feel that Peter Bradshaw, the Guardian's esteemed film critic (whose review of Sleuth was one of the most glorious, passionate pieces of critical bile you will read this year), may have just unleashed an avalanche of vitriol on himself. At present the comment count stands at one but with that trademark sub-ed subtlety the headline is likely to cause a bit of a stir.

The Donmar's Othello Should be a Movie.

Now, Bradshaw had my hackles up almost immediately with this statement:
I'm sure the production is great, but the coverage has caused my old, bad feelings of rage and loathing for the theatre to surface once again, like a recurrence of malaria. More than the grandest event at the grandest opera house in Europe, it seems to me, the Donmar production effectively announces: this is a pastime for rich people.
However, the more I actually think about it, the more I have a great deal of sympathy with his position. It was something I felt myself while watching The Wooster Group's Hamlet in Paris earlier this year.

The Wooster Group being, well, the Wooster Group, rather than their version of Hamlet being based on the reasonably well known W. Shakespeare text, they set out with the intent of remaking a stage version from the 1960s featuring Richard Burton as everyones favourite angst-ridden 3o year old. And this is where my problems with the piece began.

Burton's Hamlet was a staggeringly ambitious show for its time and its location. Not only was the show performed on a minimal set with rehearsal room costumes, but the entire thing was filmed by 19 cameras and edited together into a cinematic experience sent out to cinemas across the country, being screened only once before all copies were to be destroyed (though invariably at least one survived). The idea was that the residents of Des Moines and Jacksonville would have a unique experience, once-in-a-lifetime chance to see this show, just like in the theatre.

What an ambitous, hopelessly misguided but gloriously honourable mission. To bring Broadway to the masses. To appropriate the immediacy, the liveness of theatre in the cinema. A nationwide experiment in poking at the permeable membrane dividing theatre from film. A chance to send East Coast high culture flooding out across the barren plains of 60s America. Its everything that was once magnificently, naively, bombastically optomistic about the US of A.

And here we were, 4o years and too many wars later, sitting in a room in Paris, watching the country's most acclaimed theatre company perform for an exclusive audience of well-educated, English speaking French people and well-connected people like us able to make it as far as Paris. Teasing out an elegantly strangled Hamlet that, in some ways, attempted to reclaim this performance from the masses. Although beautiful, and provacative, there was something uncomfortable about this Hamlet, and something uncomfortable about its audience.

It should also be apparent by now that I am unlikely to add my voice to those who will hold up some spurious magical quality in live theatre that means it is implicitly untranslatable to any other medium. Liveness has to be fought for and hard earned. In a theatre that increasingly relies upon effects and microphones there is often little to separate it from a cinematic experience than than the superficial thrill of attending The Theatre. That having been said this Othello does appear to be a production that retains at least traces of a authentically live experience. Michael Billington (what, not taken in vain? Is the world still turning?) comments on the unfussy, musicality of the verse - something I think is important in good Shakespeare; that in the auditorium, as with all good poetry, you are feeling the words as much as you understanding them.

And I do like Bradshaw's idea that the theatre could have open performances, like Wimbledon. Perhaps the atmosphere at such events would have a similarly reviving effect as those days always do at the aforementioned tennis tournament; a vast improvement on the smugly contented hum that otherwise prevails.

However, I think that in some ways Bradshaw fundamentally misses the point of theatre, understandably considering his job seeing it as some kind of antiquated live cinema.

Theatre is not a 'product' for consumption in the same way that cinema is. Theatre is an experience, a participatory event. A theatre ticket is a contract, not a receipt. To this end theatre is as much about the making as it is about the watching. And in that respect it's a fundamentally more socially levelling experience than cinema will ever be. As I said recently, theatre can happen in a power cut. It can happen in an empty room. It can happen on a street. It can be made by anyone and watched by anyone. Cinema can not. Notwithstanding the jaw-breakingly exhuberant costs involved in the meaningless, purile, decadent nonsense spewed out by Hollywood (and I mean everyone from Wes Anderson to Paul Anderson), on the simplest level to be able to make a film you need to be able to afford a camera. And to then actually have that film then seen by anyone you need a lot more than that.

Cinema and television may reach more people but its not just about the reaching. It's what you do with that audience.

Theatre is about intimacy not spectacle. It is exclusive, eclectic, obscure and, well, special. Theatre can be an experience for two people. Hell, it can be an experience for one. It's not about everyone getting 'the same experience', as Bradshaw says, in fact it's quite the opposite.

Spectacle washes through us, it overlooks us, it shouts at us. It tells us.

Intimacy invites us, it looks at us, it listens to us. It asks us.

And intimacy isn't necessarily about small numbers. You can have an intimate crowd, indeed the company Grid Iron often refer to their work as intimate spectacle. Intimacy is about an attitude. It is about collective understanding of the particular group of people in this particular place (the audience, the actors, whoever) being part of something unique, something, well, intimate. You can have intimacy in an auditorium. You can be without it in a room with one person (I certainly have been during some so called one-on-one experience that felt more like soulless conveyor belt titillation than any sense of genuine intimacy).

But of course, if theatre doesn't do these things, if it is merely an exclusive spectacle, what does that mean? Unlike there earlier work, there was nothing intimate or engaging about The Wooster Group's hollow spectacle. Their knowing simulacrum of both liveness and film was clever, but it was also empty.

This I think is where Bradshaw's rage justifiably arrives. Because here the frisson of excitement you feel, that magic quality people talk so often about, is not to do with theatre its to do with exclusivity. It's that same box ticking satisfaction that people have at the Mona Lisa. And it is at these moments that theatre feels anachronistic and outdated; the poor man's hand-made art absurdly dressed up in suffocating velvet.


Alison Croggon said...

Dan, I hope you get a chance to see A Poor Theatre's Hamlet, shot in the streets of Melbourne on a shoestring budget, which I think is just amazing. It being a fillum, you might. They did the original play in a shopfront and it's still one of my Shakespeare highlights.

Mostly you can't escape the economy of film. Almost every decision is ultimately about money, and that's the rub, because as we all know, mostly the wrong people have money.

Andrew Field said...

Actually this is Andy, Dan's over here but it's an easy mistake to make considering that English theatre blogging universe seems to be ever-coalescing into a giant theatrical hive mind. Perhaps we should all start writing under a collective pseudonym. It's the future, I'm telling you.

Sounds great, by the way, the Hamlet. Will have to try and find myself a copy of it.

One thing I didn't really mention is that I didn't really get into is Bradshaw's presumption of a universality to theatre, that it should be able to be seen by anyone anywhere.

Theatre's power is in it's localness. It does not deal in the universal but in the local. This is true of anything from the peculaliarly medieval north-eastern complaints of the biblical shephard in the mystery plays right through to the beautiful work of Mike Pearson today.

To this end I don't know if I'm that happy with the idea of superstar actors and superstar productions that seem to speak of a sort of timeless universality that, if you look at the comments building below bradshaw's piece, leaves people elsewhere feeling decidely left out.

I'm not explaining myself well but I think I'm saying each locality should have its own theatre that is not better or worse than any other but simply is.

danbye said...

Just to add to the confusion, way back in my heady early days with this blog (in June) I wrote something about film myself. Reading back, I discover that the way you tell the difference is simple: Andy's a philosopher and I'm a thief.

Alison Croggon said...

I thought I'd better apologise over here, too. No reflection on either of you, actually, but the hive mind is a wonderful cover.

Yes, totally with you on the local and intimate and present nature of theatre.