Thursday, 28 June 2007

Plays and Theatre

There's a real difference between going to see plays and going to see theatre. Plays privilege the literary. Theatre privileges nothing, refuses nothing, denies nothing. Some plays are theatre and some theatre uses plays. What the hell am I talking about, you ask?

As noted in an earlier post, I was terribly excited by Mike Bartlett's My Child at the Royal Court. Not only was it a cracking piece of writing, but it seemed to me to bespeak a new era at the Court, one that might even be called theatrically dynamic. It was a good play, but it was great theatre; the space and the design were as much a part of its success as the text, if not more.

So it was with some disappointment that I left latest Court offering The Pain and the Itch having utterly loathed it. I don't think Michael Billington is wrong when he indicates it's tremendously funny: like the rest of the audience, I laughed a great deal. (Billington watchers: go to the penultimate paragraph of that review, read the second sentence, and tell me he hasn't descended into self-parody.) I just found it completely hateful.

The problem is not the target: the "phoney liberals" who people the play, drowning in their wealth and self-importance, get my goose as much as Norris's. I have no truck with people who talk equality and liberalism before - or even while - engaging in casual racism of the laziest sort. I find such people considerably more ennervating than straight-down-the-line bigots like Bernard Manning or Richard Littlejohn. But in real life, I just avoid such people; and if I for some reason can't, then my fists start to itch. That's exactly what happened at the Royal Court last week. Listening to these terrible people behaving terribly made me terribly, terribly angry. The acting was so good I thought I was watching real people, real, terrible people. I wanted to get up on stage and give them a good kicking. In what way does the inspiration of such feelings make for good art?

And it wasn't at all interesting theatre; it was one of the normallest things I've seen in a very long time, unusual only for the lavishness of its naturalism rather for the one clumsy way in which it pretended to be daring. In a device borrowed from Six Degrees of Separation, the characters broke the frame occasionally in order to narrate the story or comment upon some aspect of it to an almost-silent Arab character, Mr Hadid. But unlike Six Degrees, nothing interesting was done with this device and it took us nowhere; it just provided a convenient way of unravelling the plot at the climax, and of pretending it wasn't just a very dull old-fashioned play.

The Court's peak in the sixties and seventies saw a series of plays of breathtaking theatricality. Bond, Brenton: they even used to let Barker in. Many of these plays and more sprang from the writers' group run by Bill Gaskill, in which he had them participating in mask workshops and movement sessions, experimenting with puppets and doing chorus work. Writers' groups today are all story, inciting incident and character arc, tools borrowed wholesale from film. Those tools are important, for sure, but there's a whole world out there that they don't touch. Why are we afraid to show new playwrights the tools of their own trade? Fin Kennedy's How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found was one of few, of very few plays I've seen recently of any real formal innovation. It took years and a John Whiting Award for it to find a home. "These aren't rules, they're guidelines", I keep hear writers being told. "They're there to be broken." Yet when writers do break them, we very rarely know what to do with the results.

There's a widening fissure between plays and theatre in this country. On another theatregoing night in London I saw Kneehigh's adaptation of A Matter of Life and Death. It's a great sign of the health of alternative approaches to theatremaking that Kneehigh are presenting work on the biggest stage of our National Theatre. But if anything the current strength of companies like Kneehigh serves only to show how far apart are the "alternative" and the "mainstream". It's absurd that an arbitrary line should be drawn. But it consistently is, and it's down to a reluctance on the part of mainstream theatremakers of all types - actors, directors and designers - to engage with this wacky and intimidating world where people play in order to make plays.

I have a madcap theory about this. In 1599, Shakespeare sacked his clown Will Kemp, no doubt irritated by practices such as the jig. What's the jig? It is something no one ever tells you about, which should give you a clue as to whether the institutional sympathies in this country lie with plays or with theatre. It was a twenty- to thirty-minute improvised act, featuring a lot of dancing but also lots of flummery and fun, performed by the clown from the play. So at the end of Romeo and Juliet, Peter the clown (remember him? He's there) takes the stage, sweeps aside the corpses, and buggers about for half an hour. It was phenomenally popular, and audiences would often creep in at the end of the play just to catch the jig. The "nasty, bawdy jig" irritated many a playwright, not least because those creeping in at the end for it avoided paying the price of admission.

So Shakespeare sacked Kemp and took his company off in a new direction. The jig was done away with, and the new clown, Robert something-or-other, was required to perform much more cerebral stuff, the kind of jigging with words seen in V.1 of Hamlet. It was a big artistic risk, but the audiences, seeing that he was doing good work, continued to come.

Shakespeare's was a good artistic decision. It was also the thin end of the wedge. Pretty much since that time "plays" and "theatre" (or perhaps we might say "performance") have existed in two separate traditions - often overlapping and frequently cross-fertilising. But separate all the same. The same fissure never occurred in Italy, whose performance tradition of commedia dell'arte survives in one form or another into the plays of its best-known writers - most obviously Dario Fo, but no less so Pirandello if you read him carefully. Meanwhile, in this country, plays are as close in sympathy to poetry as they are to performance.

Other traditions have related pecularities. I met a French playwright who announced that for him, plays are essentially poetry, explorations of ideas through language. His play was terrible. Utterly inert, undynamic and untheatrical in every respect; more like an arch Socratic dialogue than a dramatic text. Yet both the French and the German playwriting traditions have a superabundance of this sort of thing; plays of situational and linguistic verve but lacking completely for the dramatic. Those playwriting traditions have gone way beyond our own divergence from the theatrical. But they make up for in (after a fashion) with a performance tradition which survives in their utterly (sometimes brilliantly so) batty directors. There is no onus on the playwright to provide dramatic or theatrical spectacle; the directors will do that, and in any case the writers write the sort of thing that seems to get put on. Loads and loads of our writers get done in France, and especially in Germany - and by the time they get performed they look as mad as anything written in the native language. I heard about a Dutch company who commissioned a new play, developed it with the writer, then once the rehearsal period had started (and all publicity had been done), chucked out the text completely and devised something new instead. And David Greig tells a story about going to see a production of his play Europe in the former East Germany, during a particularly poignant scene of which the characters were seen chucking a giant inflatable carrot around the stage. "What did you think of the show?", the director asked him afterwards. "I liked it", David replies, ever polite. "There was one thing though. The carrot? What was that all about?" The director gives him an uncomprehending look. "The carrot: it is communism.

We're lucky to have a tradition in which writing is accorded respect. As Sarah Kane said about the Germanic tradition of mad productions, "it's all very well doing that with Shakespeare: you can't ruin his chances of a second commission." Writers can create theatre with directors and actors, rather than providing material for those people to either fuck about with crazedly, or do the same old thing they always do. But writers are hemmed in at the moment: they're being developed left, right and centre, and the result is the same three plays over and over again. They should go to the theatre more often, rather than just going to see plays.

There are, of course, exceptions. Anthony Neilson has his faults, but he writes theatre, not just plays. Chris Goode not only makes fine work of this sort but also articulates exceptionally well the process by which he does so. It's a shame the first two examples that come to mind happen to be writers who direct their own work; for whom writing and directing are part of the same process. Anyone got any good examples of writers who write the sort of thing I'm talking about, then hand it over to someone else to direct? I hope Man Across the Way fits the bill to an extent, but we haven't finished it yet so now's not the time to push it forward. There must be some, but the mind's a blank.

To end though, an exemplary exception from across the pond. A pair of theatre trips in London saw me taking in Tony Kushner's epochal Angels in America. I have several reservations about the production, about which perhaps more another time. But the play seems to me very near the apotheosis of the playwright's art. Kushner has written into it not just character arcs and inciting incidents and good jokes and invisible exposition. He's written into it theatre, and even in a production that falls short of several markers, it's an extraordinary, exhilirating spectacle and a resounding experience. It's seven hours in total and barely a moment wasted. Reminds you of why you like plays. And theatre.

14 comments:

wilko said...

Dude, I hate to be pedantic, but the Romans in Britain opened at the Nationla not the Royal Court (good post otherwise though)...

oe said...

i find it interesting that as a former student of leeds university you see the duality of theatre/plays so clearly.
conceived in the 70s when, as you say, the devision was invisible in british theatre (at least to a lesser extent than today), the course exposes a student to among other things, african theatre, devised theatre, as well as the work of contemporary british writers. that such a fundamental education still exists is quite exceptional and blurs the play/theatre boundary almost completely. and companies such as unlimited or forced entertainment (they're leeds, aren't they?) confound the usual pigeonholing simply, i believe, because of what they have grown up with.
enough of the flag waving for leeds, but isn't there something to the notion that the regionality of some of the 'theatre' companies you mentioned plays a part in what you're saying? london is, and has always been (since big will himself), the most writerly of towns...

danbye said...

Good point, Chris. Consider it amended.

Olly - I don't think I agree. Forced Entertainment (Sheffield) do confound some of the "usual pigeonholing", but none that has anything to do with the dichotomy between plays and performance. They're all performance.

Unlimited are a fine example though. A lot of those suspicious of devised theatre lob at it the charge that it's messy and ill-formed. They're very often wrong, but I reckon the dramaturgical skills that combat such problems are very often writers' skills, and Unlimited have a couple of very good writers on the home team.

As for the Leeds course - it's not radically different from other Theatre Studies courses except in so far as it is English Literature and Theatre Studies, setting up a sort of dichotomy right away, and in that "devised theatre" and "twentieth century British political theatre" are firmly and completely different modules with no overlap at all.

oe said...

ah. you've missed my point. i think it is interesting that you have ANY theatrical education. leeds is by the by (although it was the first and so is the template for a lot of others). most practitioners don't but are simply oxbridge graduates, graduates who will (naturally enough) prioritise the 'written' over the 'performed'. i think my point is about traditions (as was yours) but i'm linking it to education.
i still feel i'm not making myself clear...

danbye said...

I don't know how much education has to do with individual cases. Chris Goode went to Cambridge, for example.

punshon said...

yeah. I'll defend to the death the ability of someone who didn't do Theatre Studies to make theatre, not just plays. I give you Simon McBurney.

danbye said...

Or Alex Ferguson.

wilko said...

Alex did theatre studies. So did I.

oe said...

yes, okay. i'm not talking about a particular course or education system. though for my money, 'theatre studies' are not dirty words. also, simon mcburny went to le coq, so if that ain't theatre education of different kind then i'm not sure what is...
i was trying to make a point about how dan was able to make the distinction because of his theatrical education...
anyway, what i'm really interested in this idea of dan's of a diverging culture of 'plays' and 'theatre' and how what we often see at the theatre is often one or the other. (up to a point, this is what 'silver tongue' has tried in the past to bridge). but i would argue that england (particularly england) is a literary culture, a play culture and that the 'theatre' pieces stem from a more euroscentric root. and because until recently that kind of work would only be seen in the fringes or the continent, where or how a particualr practitioner learnt her/his craft is important. and can we really disengage the fact that there are more 'theatre' companies at a time when there are more educational establishments teaching beyond the simply literary?
speaking absolutely personally, the fact that i had tutors at university who introduced me to absurdism and devising work has had a huge influence on the kind of theatre i make and, indeed, the kind of theatre i enjoy watching...
of course, there are exceptions to these general points. but, for example, the arrival of the berliner emsemble in 1956 (i think) with their brand of germanic madness had an interesting, if delayed, effect on the theatre of the time...
i'm going to be quiet now...

Anonymous said...

Whilst formally innovative shows are exciting, I would rather see a piece of theatre that has challenging content than one which experiements with form for its own sake.

danbye said...

I'd like to see both - let no-one imagine that by calling for a greater use of our form's potential I'm suggesting that it should go stoopid. Angels in America is so exciting precisely because it pushed forward on both counts.

Alison Croggon said...

This distinction is one of my own preoccupations. Theatre seen solely as a vehicle for plays bores me to tears.

I'd suggest Daniel Keene as a playwright who writes for theatre. (He is famous in France precisely because most French playwrights are so untheatrical in their approach, so he arrives like a refreshing dose of salts). Sadly, most of his work is only available in French, though Salt has a volume out in English.

Andrew Field said...

I'd say the obvious example would have to be Martin Crimp.

His plays frequently demand completion through performance - they require the involvement of a director who will realise his words in a given way.

His relationship with Katie Mitchell (who directed not only the restagging of Attempts... but also his recent translation of Brecht at the Young Vic) would seem to suggest a relationship in which a playwright sees the role a director as more than just politely realising the writer's creative vision.

While we're at it how about David Eldridge's collaborations with Rufus Norris? Or any of Caryl Churchill's recent productions. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a writer more comfortable with experimentation and challenging theatrical forms than Churchill (A number, Far Away, even back to something like Cloud Nine) and she barely ever directs her own work.

danbye said...

That mid-period of Churchill's career is particularly noteworthy in this context because of the way much of it was made by drawing on improvisations and a generally collaborative approach. The results include two of my favourite plays about the mid-seventeenth century - Vinegar Tom, for Monstrous Regiment, and Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, for Joint Stock. Cheers Andrew - useful examples.