Nine Lives, Arcola Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

As so often, at the end of last year Philomena Cunk – the brilliantly terrible (or perhaps terribly brilliant) creation of Charlie Brooker and Diane Morgan – spoke the horrifying truth about the media’s portrayal of the refugee crisis. “Now it looked kind of different,” she reflected on the media’s sudden about-turn, “less swarm-y and threatening and more harrowing and urgent and sad. And the clever thing was, it was the same sort of pictures you’d seen earlier, but now you knew the twist about them being humans it seemed totally different.”

Zodwa Nyoni’s monologue attempts to recover the humanity so often denied in tabloid news reports and bile-filled columns. Nine Lives is the story of just one refugee: Ishmael, fleeing homophobic violence in Zimbabwe. Now in the UK, he waits in a mouldy flat in Leeds – emphatically “not home” – his life on pause while he’s suspended in bureaucratic limbo. Everything hinges on a brown envelope on the doormat, a black and white “yes” or “no” to his asylum request. Stuck on the conveyor belt of the UK immigration system, Ishmael is no longer a person but a number, a statistic on a computer screen or the page of a newspaper.

Under a single, stark lightbulb – the bareness of the stage suggesting the bareness of his new life – Lladel Bryant’s restless, lonely Ishmael tells his story. He talks of metamorphosis, of refugees in “concrete cocoons”, and of a hostile, overwhelming city. This jagged day-to-day experience is also punctuated with almost poetic interludes that refer to the wider plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Each beginning “some of us”, they break apart the undifferentiated mass so often shown in the media, reasserting shared yet particular human experiences:

“Some of us were running”.

“Some of us couldn’t recognise ourselves anymore.”

“Some of us were alone.”

“Some of us were begging for a taste of your liberty.”

In keeping with Nyoni’s reclaiming of these stories, the primary focus of Alex Chisholm’s production is the narrative. Aside from the lightbulb, all that joins Bryant on stage is a large, battered suitcase, which has to be both home and past for Ishmael in this temporary new existence. It’s a simple staging that could be even simpler still. Occasional, exaggerated sound effects – the nightmarish ticking of a clock, for instance – hardly seem necessary to communicate what straightforward storytelling does so clearly and compassionately. It’s through being stripped back where headlines are embellished that Nine Lives gains its power.

Implicit throughout, lingering like a bad aftertaste, is the vitriolic media narrative around immigration. Words like “swarm” and “droves” are never used, but they can’t help but haunt Ishmael’s experiences. When he’s targeted in the street, it’s with accusations right out of The Sun or the Daily Mail: he’s seen as a scrounger, an alien, a leech. To his landlady, he’s a source of cash and irritation; to the aggressive teenager who confronts him outside his flat, he’s a convenient figure of blame.

No one talks about the loneliness. Absent from all the news reports is the yawning emptiness of arriving on a foreign shore without family, friends or lovers. While lacking depth and background in some areas, what pierces through both Nyoni’s writing and Bryant’s performance is the terrible enforced solitude and isolation experienced by refugees like Ishmael. Pacing the empty stage and impressively inhabiting the voices of a range of other characters, Bryant can appear at times like a man frantically fighting to fill the void of his loneliness.

At a slender 55 minutes, there are limits to what Nine Lives can achieve. There are few resolutions, either for endlessly waiting Ishmael or for the wider issues that the piece touches on. But as a simple, unadorned plea for common humanity, it’s still depressingly necessary. In one of the play’s tenderest moments, teenage mother Bex – herself discarded and mistreated – reaches out a hand to Ishmael, recognising him for who he is and extending the offer of friendship. It’s an act that, on a much larger scale, Nine Lives implicitly appeals for.

Are We On The Same Page?

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Back in 2009, Andy Field argued in a post on the Guardian Theatre Blog that “all theatre is devised and all theatre is text-based”. Cutting through arguments about “new writing” and “new work”, he reasoned that “to devise is simply to invent”, whether that inventing is done with words or bodies or any combination of the two. Job done, surely?

Yet the disingenuous “text-based versus non-text-based” debate has rumbled on. It flared up yet again at the beginning of this year, when David Edgar was announced as Humanitas Visiting Professor in Drama at the University of Oxford and raised familiar concerns about the threatened position of playwriting and the playwright, met with retorts from the likes of Lyn Gardner and Andrew Haydon. While Edgar persisted in pitting other forms of contemporary theatre practice against playwriting, others agreed with Gardner that what we need now is “a far wider and looser definition around what we mean by new writing”. Alex Chisholm, writing in these pages over three years ago, argued much the same thing.

But it’s not just about changing industry terminology. Current binaries are based in long-seated assumptions about the nature of the theatre text and the privileged place of the solo-authored play within British theatre tradition. Unsettling assumptions – and by extension the structures and processes that have congealed around those assumptions – is no easy task. It is happening, with the publication of books like Duska Radosavljevic’s excellent Theatre-Making: Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century and shifts in programming and commissioning at theatres such as the Bush and the Royal Court, but there’s still a way to go.

Shifting understandings around text and performance means shifting the possibilities open to theatre-makers. Writing in the immediate aftermath of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, where categories like “new writing” and “new work” seem more and more irrelevant each year, Matt Trueman suggested that “a new kind of fusion theatre is emerging”. He pointed to young companies like Barrel Organ and Breach Theatre, who seemingly don’t discriminate between new writing, devising and documentary theatre. He concluded that this slamming of one set of techniques into another creates a healthy and experimental theatrical landscape, in which “the possibilities are endless”.

The picture sketched by Trueman is an exhilarating one, but there are still questions to be asked. Often, the supposed binary between “text-based” and “non-text-based” theatre has rested on larger ideological stakes; “non-text-based” work has frequently been seen as alternative, radical, progressive. But to what extent is that still true? Mightn’t real ideological interrogation, as Liz Tomlin suggests in Acts and Apparitions, lie in looking beyond superficialities of form? And in order to rethink the relationship between text and performance, we also need to think again about what it is the theatre text actually does. Is it a blueprint for performance? A set of tools? Is there really a difference between “open” and “closed” texts, and if not then is there anything that the theatre text makes impossible in performance?

These are some of the ideas that I’m hoping we can address at Are We On The Same Page? Approaches to Text and Performance, a one-day symposium at Royal Holloway on 26th September. Bringing together academics, critics and practitioners, the aim is to erode old binaries and open up genuine, searching discussions, rather than re-igniting old antagonisms.

The day will open with a Q&A with Tim Crouch, whose work as a theatre-maker has repeatedly confounded distinctions between “new writing” and “new work” and challenged our collective understandings of theatre’s representational mechanisms. Field, Radosavljevic and Haydon are all among the panellists who will be speaking later in the day, alongside a range of other theatre-makers and academics whose practice and scholarship has in various ways engaged with some of the questions identified above.

What we hope to generate throughout the day is dialogue in place of dichotomies. It’s about time we ended what Chris Goode calls “the phoney ‘writers versus devisors’ war” and started to interrogate some of the bigger, knottier issues that old battle has served to hide.

A Tissue of Quotations: Theatre & Authorship

To state that theatre is an essentially ephemeral art form would seem to be a reiteration of the obvious. The distinct nature of performance lies in its liveness, its specific relationship with a specific set of audience members at a specific moment in time, none of which can ever quite be replicated. At a less specific level, each production is a crystallized present moment, an entity that exists only for the length of its run and is determined by a very particular set of choices and aesthetics. Theatre is, at its heart, a fleeting phenomenon.

Yet we remain, at least in British theatre culture, obsessed with preservation, with legacy, and with the rigidly hierarchical process of pinning a production down to a single authoritative source for the purposes of that preservation. Hence the primacy of the “author”. And I was, initially, as unquestioningly compliant with this notion of authorship as anyone else; it is, after all, easier for the purposes of a review to assume that the content of the piece has been born from the mind of the writer and to conflate all connecting themes, threads and resonances with the intention of the playwright. But such assumptions have been bracingly unsettled by the recent focus on British theatre’s false dichotomy between “new writing” and “new work”, a dichotomy which I would argue has deeply ingrained notions of authorship at its core.

There are many perceived differences underlying this opposition between what has been loosely referred to as text-based and non-text-based theatre, differences connected with narrative, character, aesthetic etc., but it seems to me that the unifying aspect at their centre is the presence or absence of a single author. Text-based work is typically associated with naturalism, linear narrative and a coherent driving “message” because it is supposed to be the creation of one dominant creator, one authorial “voice”, with all other elements of the production harnessed to serve the vision outlined in the text. Non-text-based work, by contrast, is seen as eschewing all of these notions of linearity and coherence because it has been conceived by a devising ensemble and consists of a multiplicity of voices.

Of course, such assumptions are often not the case in practice, but while the moment of performative realisation may be more democratic, it is the author whose name will remain attached to the work long after its production. For this reason, as Kat Joyce eloquently argues in her guest column over at Exeunt, work that does not have a clear hierarchy of authorship and that explicitly depends upon the nature of its liveness risks being obliterated by the very text-based process of historicising, thus perpetuating the supremacy of scripted work. In Joyce’s words:

“At its deepest level, does a system which fixates on individuals and playtexts also radically undervalue the potentials and possibilities of live performance in all its unfixed, unstable, temporary glory?”

It is clear – at least to me – that we need to rethink our rigid definition of authorship if we are not to devalue the moment of performance and neglect a huge swathe of this country’s theatrical output. But this isn’t just about recognising the work of devising companies, because recognition alone does not necessarily smash down the persistent divide between text-based and non-text-based work (undeniably reductive and misleading labels, but ones which are handy for the purposes of this piece). Negotiating that divide and the reasons behind it is much trickier.

It boils down, I think, to an idea of authorship that extends beyond the realm of theatre and performance. We are part of a literary culture which is, as Roland Barthes put it in his seminal essay “The Death of the Author”, “tyrannically centred on the author”. Throughout secondary school, students are encouraged to interrogate texts in order to unveil their “meaning”, as if reading was one long act of detective work, with the author’s intention enshrined at its centre. While university courses in literature explore a much more nuanced approach to textual analysis, there is a general subscription to the prominence of the author in all text-based art forms, an approach that has insidiously crept into understandings of theatre.

Because such an author-centred approach is key to our culture, much talk in theatre has been given over to “serving the text”, “serving the writer”, “staying true to the writer’s intention” etc. Within such a model, all other elements of a production become tools to illuminate the writer’s purpose and the other creatives involved are viewed as little more than vehicles to convey an overarching authorial “message”.

The problems and contradictions inherent in this model can be illustrated by a couple of examples drawn from conversations I’ve had with theatremakers, examples which I’m sure are not unique. Discussing feedback that she’d received about her interpretation of Gods Are Fallen and All Safety Gone, Greyscale’s Selma Dimitrijevic told me that audiences seemed outraged about certain directorial choices that she had made (the most discussed of these being her decision to cast male actors as women) until they became aware that she had also written the play. Apparently directorial interpretation is only acceptable when it originates from the writer. On a slightly different note, Thomas Eccleshare expressed his frustration with the fact that, despite creating work for two years with his company Dancing Brick, it was only when he won the Verity Bargate Award that he earned the label of “writer”, with devised work remaining stubbornly excluded from the narrow category of new writing.

Joyce’s column, which draws partly from her own experiences as the co-artistic director of physical theatre ensemble tangled feet, again expands on the difficulties posed by a culture which places a disproportionate value on the written text, while Hannah Silva has blogged on numerous occasions about the restrictive definition of new writing that prevails in this country and the difficulties of negotiating that definition (I can’t track down the exact piece that I have filed away at the back of my mind, but read her blog for some fantastic reflections and provocations about writing for theatre).

There’s much more to say about how the divide between text-based and non-text-based theatre has been reinforced, particularly through the Arts Council funded new writing drives referred to in Alex Chisholm’s essay for Exeunt, but I’d like to remain focused on this central notion of authorship, its complexities and how it might be reconfigured. Barthes, who I have already quoted, provides one answer to how the false idol of the author might be displaced. He describes the text as “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” In other words, no piece of writing is truly original and all writers are continually quoting their antecedents.

If we accept Barthes’ definition of the text, authorship is at best an act of curation and interpretation – not, really, all that different from directing. In a staunch defence of the writer’s intention in his essay “Interpretation – To Impose or Explain”, playwright Arnold Wesker posited this argument in order to deride it, laughing at the possibility of “interpreting an interpretation”. I would contest, however, that this is not such a ridiculous idea. Not only might a writer produce an interpretation rather than an utterly original source text, but that interpretation might be jointly (re)interpreted by director, performers and entire creative team in collaboration with the writer (or writers), acknowledging that theatre is an emphatically collaborative art form.

It is also worth briefly interrogating the term “text”, which I’ve been carelessly throwing around as if it had one single, fixed meaning. This term is generally interpreted to mean the written text in the form of a conventional script, but it can – and perhaps should – be expanded to include the entire dramatic text, encompassing all elements of a production and its reception, acknowledging a circuit that is completed by the audience. I’m reminded of another discussion with Selma Dimitrijevic, in which there was some consideration of the similarly unstable word “play”; Selma said that she typically interprets this to refer exclusively to the written script, but it is used interchangeably by critics, at some times indicating the script and at other times the whole production.

Bringing critics into the mix flags up their (our?) role in this binary. There is a tendency, conscious or not, to write separately about all the individual elements of a production, isolating writing, direction, design and performance in a sort of criticism by numbers that I know I’ve been guilty of employing. This is often a case of convenience and is to an extent inevitable; without having observed the process, which is another debate entirely, it’s impossible to know who was responsible for each and every creative choice. Yet there is a danger, because criticism again holds a certain lasting currency by virtue of its written format, that a failure by critics to acknowledge the collaborative nature of work will perpetuate the schism. I’m not yet entirely sure how this danger can be overcome, but it’s worth considering.

Having scratched away a little, if only fairly superficially, at the notion of authorship, how might it be possible to rethink the format of the legacising theatrical (written) text? To answer this question, it’s also necessary to answer the question of what a playtext is for. Physical theatre company Square Peg summed it up nicely in a response on Twitter: “Is the script the beginning or the end of a process? A document or an instruction? Can it not be both?” I’d agree that the written element of theatre has a dual role, acting as a (non-fixed) jumping off point and as a form of preservation, though both of these twin roles are slippery.

Some intriguing questions were asked via a recent conversation on Twitter between Bryony Kimmings and Oberon Books, with contributions from others, which was one of the catalysts for nailing down these thoughts. As later blogged by Kimmings, she wanted to explore whether the kind of art she creates could be published as a script, and if so what form that might take. She asked: “How does a live artist that plays in the Cabaret space at Soho Theatre and just did her first stand up gig get her work published … does she need to?”

The need could be quite persuasively argued as a form of documentation and legacy, a way of recording live art in the same way as text-based theatre. The question of format, however, is less easily answered. Would it be a script detailing the original performance, or a DIY kit allowing space for interpretation? It all depends, of course, on whether a work is intended to be produced again. At the risk of banging on about it yet again, here I think it’s interesting to bring in the example of Three Kingdoms (which also, though I won’t discuss it here, provides an interesting challenge to British theatre’s text bias, possibly offering a way to bridge the gap). Here is a playscript that differs so dramatically from Sebastian Nübling’s production that they are really two different texts. Were anyone brave enough to attempt another production, would they start from Simon Stephens’ script or from its collective realisation on stage?

Much more could be written on this thorny issue, but for now I’d just like to bring in one final example that complicates matters even further. In the absence of a space at Edinburgh this year, Forest Fringe have made the fascinating decision to “create a performance space built not of bricks and mortar but paper and ink”. Paper Stages is a book co-authored (again destabilising the concept of a single voice of authority) by a wide range of Forest Fringe artists and made available for festival-goers to perform themselves. There will as a result be multiple dramatic texts, many performed in the absence of audiences and without documentation, giving fluid meaning to ideas of authorship, performance, reception and collaboration.

A script is not fixed or indeed finished until the moment of performance and reception, but perhaps a performance’s documentation is equally unfixed. To come full circle, theatre is ephemeral. While preservation remains an important concern for artists attempting to secure their place within a text-biased culture, there is an argument that to resist the uniqueness of live performance is essentially futile. We should be celebrating liveness, not attempting to solidify it.