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.

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An Innately Optimistic Profession

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Originally written for Exeunt.

At the close of his introduction to the latest book in the Methuen Modern British Playwriting series, Andrew Haydon departs on a distinctly optimistic note. Surveying British theatre at the end of the 2000s, he sees a landscape of possibilities, looking towards a “future where old divisions between ‘New Work’ and ‘New Writing’ had turned into fertile breeding grounds for collaboration” and “where a progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty had begun to replace condescension and refusal”.

Almost halfway through the decade following that with which the book concerns itself, the barrier between ‘New Writing’ and ‘New Work’ – although productively challenged – has not entirely dissolved, while continued funding cuts pose a threat for that “progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty”. But what comes through strongly, both in the period discussed by the book and the years since, is an increasing spirit of collaboration, as pointed to by Haydon. Faced with the rise of new forms and shifting understandings of the relationship between theatre and its audiences, a number of contemporary British playwrights have adapted their practice accordingly, embracing new and varied ways of working.

Two prime examples, both discussed in Methuen’s volume, are Simon Stephens and David Greig. As Jacqueline Bolton points out in her excellent chapter on Stephens’ work, his prolific output is “distinguished by a willingness and enthusiasm to work collaboratively”. Perhaps his most striking collaboration is that with German director Sebastian Nübling, which Ramin Gray has suggested is unique, but beyond this he has a sustained interest in opening up his writing. Stephens has spoken on many occasions about how his encounters with other theatre cultures and artists – and, indeed, with critics – have invigorated his practice. Talking to me in a recent interview, he described his plays as “the starting point of a conversation between myself and a director, a director and a cast of actors, director and artistic team, artistic director and a director, and then artistic collaboration and an audience”. The play is not the thing; it’s a point of departure.

Bolton’s chapter goes one step further by linking Stephens’ interest in and commitment to collaboration with the recurrent preoccupations of his writing. While many have noted the bleakness and brutality of the worlds Stephens puts on stage (with the help of his collaborators, of course), Bolton sees instead – or, rather, in addition – a compassion for his subjects and a genuine quest for communication and understanding. This chimes with the spirit of collaboration pursued in Stephens’ work; as Bolton puts it, “To work collaboratively is, after all, to affirm the importance and significance of truth, of respect and of generosity”. This can be supported by Stephens’ own assertion that theatre is “an innately optimistic profession”.

Greig’s work has an equally complex relationship with optimism, as The Events knottily demonstrated last year. He has also worked in a number of different ways, with an output that ranges from shows created through devising processes to the libretto for the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; from plays for children to epic, abstract, internationally focused pieces. In her chapter for the Methuen collection, Nadine Holdsworth describes him as “deeply invested in the possibilities of the collective imagination, pursuing ideas across different media as well as linguistic and stylistic boundaries”. He shares with Stephens an interest in travel as a narrative theme and an openness to different collaborations.

Similarly to Bolton, Holdsworth moves away from a familiar critical narrative about Greig’s work – in this case, his engagement with Scottish national identity – and chooses to focus on the “passionate internationalism” of his plays. Her analysis opens up a consideration of how Greig offers audiences different perspectives on the world, positing brief and delicate moments of communication across seemingly irreconcilable cultures. While this is not her primary concern, her study also reveals Greig’s willingness to experiment with structure and storytelling, clashing together different theatrical styles and techniques, and how through this process the playwright often questions his own authorial status in the creation of his plays.

Some of these ideas, which I have only briefly sketched out above, will be discussed further at two upcoming symposia in Lincoln and Brighton, addressing the work of Greig and Stephens respectively. The University of Lincoln’s David Greig symposium at the end of this month will feature papers examining a wide range of different aspects of Greig’s work, including the role of dissonance, empathy and conflict in his plays, the way in which he deals with questions of place and nationality, his engagement with Scottish identity and the independence debate, and the historical dimension of his work.

At a separate symposium at the University of Sussex in April, meanwhile, scholars will be engaging with Stephens’ plays and in particular his dialogue with Europe. I’m looking forward to making a contribution of my own to this conversation, with a paper exploring how Stephens’ work in Germany has shifted his perspective on British theatremaking processes and the implications this might have for our own theatre culture. As Stephens has suggested, “when we travel abroad we see our home with a clarity that we may never have been offered before”, offering him an intriguingly distanced view of British theatre.

It feels important that events such as these carry on the conversation, provoking the sort of new insights into these playwrights’ work that they both habitually seek. The best we can hope for is, to return to Haydon’s words, “a progressive spirit of inquiry”.

The University of Lincoln’s one day symposium on the work of David Greig is being held on 29th March. Registration is now open here.

 The University of Sussex’s symposium on Simon Stephens’ connection with Europe will take place on 30th April 2014.

Photo:Stephen Cummsikey.

Translunar Paradise & Critical Distance

If you’ll forgive the cliché, sometimes less really can be more, as Theatre ad Infinitum prove with their delicate essay on love and loss. The plot is simple, the production accomplished through a blend of simplicity and ingenuity. The elderly male protagonist is coming to terms with the loss of his wife, still taking down two cups from the cupboard instead of one, rifling through suitcases brimming with memories; his wife’s ghost looks on, gently but firmly wrenching herself from his grieving grasp. This is all told, over an hour, with no words. Instead we have the sigh and hum of an accordion, the narrative precision of movement. In a beautifully judged touch, masks are inventively used to convey age, whipped away to transport the couple back to their youth and lightly hinting at the deceptive proximity of these two states.

Through a series of smoothly executed flashbacks, we are given a glimpse into this couple’s life together, from the moment they meet, through their small joys and disappointments, to the little tragedies that touch their existence and eventually wrench them apart. Into this moving story of the lives of one ordinary couple, Theatre ad Infinitum even manage to weave one of the most chillingly evocative visualisations of war and its traumatic psychological scars that I’ve seen on the stage. On real and dreamed battlefields, performer George Mann is pummelled by invisible blasts, painfully contorted, violently tossed about by nightmarish forces. Not all of Spielberg’s mud and gore can quite match it for emotional force.

Speaking of emotional force, while watching I couldn’t help thinking of Lovesong. While these may in many senses be two very different pieces of theatre, there are common elements that immediately leap out: the process of a man coming to terms with the idea of losing his wife, the centrality of physical movement, the melting of past into present. I found, however, that Translunar Paradise was more genuinely moving in its wordless simplicity than Lovesong was in all its none too subtle emotional manipulation. Sobbing is all very well (though not something I’m particularly susceptible to in the theatre, to my immense discomfort as everyone around me at the Lyric Hammersmith sniffed into their tissues) but an excess of tears can blur meaning beyond intelligibility.

While Lovesong sacrificed promising debates about the nature of time in favour of prodding at our tear ducts, here such underlying strands are given more nuanced exploration. Through what is, on the surface, an ordinary tale of two ordinary people, Theatre ad Infinitum delicately investigate the fluidity of time and, linked to this, memory. Form subtly reflects content; the flashbacks emerge as snapshots, flicked through with vivid energy. These elegantly choreographed scenes from the past rather appropriately have the stuttering quality of early film, jumping from action to action, meticulously wrought expression to expression. There is all the frenetic motion of memory and the seemingly speeded up time of youth.

After seeing this moving and beautifully assembled piece, however, I found myself thinking as much about how my impression of the performance had been refracted through my experience of speaking to creator Mann as I was thinking about the show itself. This is not to detract from Translunar Paradise in any way, but perhaps rather to detract from my own abilities and assumptions as a reviewer. As a result, this has morphed from a review into a not-quite-review with a bit of reflection on the distance between theatremakers and critics thrown into the mix.

This issue of distance was not something that had previously worried me. Yes, I sometimes review shows after writing features about those shows, but usually I still feel qualified to form an independent opinion; I don’t know the creators of the theatre well enough from one short interview to be swayed by any personal connection to them, and often there is much about the piece that still remains to be discovered even after discussing it. While it might have put a slightly different slant on those reviews, I hadn’t really thought about it in any great depth until recently.

Then the idea of ’embedded’ critics started getting thrown around. A good place to get started if you’re new to this discussion is Andrew Haydon’s blog, where he has written twice about the idea of embedded criticism, with Daniel Bye’s response making good follow up reading. Distilled down and somewhat simplified, embedded criticism denotes the deeper involvement of the critic in the piece of theatre they are writing about, be that a full immersion in the creative process or more of a surface paddle. There are lots of different ways in which this might function in practice, but the driving idea behind it is that being embedded in the process could provide illumination on both sides: critics bring their outside eye and in return gain insight into the process of making.

I’m not going to discuss embedded criticism and all its benefits and drawbacks here, partly because others have already done so fairly comprehensively and partly because I’m yet to fully make my mind up about it. I’m equally fascinated by, excited about and wary of the idea. Which brings me to the particular wariness I felt while watching Translunar Paradise. I think these concerns arose in relation to this particular production simply because Mann spoke in such eloquent detail about the process of meticulously piecing this show together. Through hearing about creative choices, I felt somehow involved in them, and the end product immediately prompted memories of the process that Mann described to get to this stage. As such, I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects.

There is always the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that as an audience member you will be unable to distinguish between whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to. There are even occasions, such as I found with Headlong’s confused and frankly bizarre touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.

Aware of this danger, doubts insidiously imposed themselves on my reading of Translunar Paradise. Was this really an exercise in precision, or did I simply see precision because I knew about the lengthy creative process? Here I feel fairly confident that yes, Theatre ad Infinitum’s work was beautifully precise, but when it comes to other building blocks of the piece I am less certain. Would I have read quite so much into the choice of accordion accompaniment had Mann not spoken about the importance of an instrument that “breathes”? Would I have picked up on the influences of photography and graphic novels? How much would I have scrutinised the physical embodiment of age had Mann not admitted that it took him a lot of work to perfect the gait of an old man?

But for all my doubts, I also feel immensely grateful for the insight that I gained into the process that made this piece of work. Ultimately I found watching Translunar Paradise a hypnotically captivating experience, which I suspect was a mixture of the show itself and the tiny glimpse I had gained of its loving creation. I also hope that any insight provided by Mann’s words might enhance the experience for other audience members. It’s a lot like the magician and his illusions; magical as it might be to be tricked and dumbfounded, another part of the mind always wants to know how it works, to feel for the cracks. And sometimes being shown the process behind the illusion even makes the illusion itself all the more beguiling.

Image: Alex Brenner