Theatre as Argument

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There’s a lot to be said about Nicholas Hytner’s tenure at the National Theatre. Hell, there are probably people already working on books about it. There’s the introduction of NT Live and the use of new spaces in and around the building; there’s the commercial success of shows such as War Horse, One Man, Two Guvnors and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time; there’s the NT’s growing association with, for want of a better word, more “experimental” companies creating work beyond its walls. And then there’s the uncomfortable, lingering question about the imbalance of male to female artists, something I’ve written about in the past, which forms part of a much broader set of issues around representation and accessibility – issues of vital importance for a theatre that purports to be “national”.

As fascinated as I am by the narratives that establish themselves around certain theatre institutions and artistic directors, though, I don’t want to go into any of that right now. But what I was struck by yet again reading Michael Billington‘s assessment of the Hytner era (as well as the astonishing statement that the lack of Sheridan revivals is a bigger problem than the under-representation of female writers) was the extent to which theatres in this country are judged by their ability to address “the big issues of the day”. Billington approvingly frames Hytner’s NT as a “forum for debate”, a triumphant statement that is quickly followed by a staggeringly generalised blow to the political credentials of all continental European theatre (“I don’t know of any comparable theatre on the continent […] that feels a need to tackle the crises affecting our daily lives”).

This interests me not just because I instinctively disagree with the narrowness of Billington’s definition of political theatre (more on that later), though I do. It also brings me back to what turned out to be the central question of my MA thesis, which looked at the cultural narratives that have been built around another major, frequently mythologised British theatre: the Royal Court. In that thesis, I suggested that a certain understanding of theatre’s purpose in the world as a (text-based) platform for discussion and debate intersects interestingly with the traditional purpose of theatre criticism, an institution whose history in this country is inextricably tied up, for better or worse, with that of journalism. I wrote that “there is a generally accepted model of writing about new plays, in which the playtext itself is the principal focus of attention and the success of the production rests on the perceived effectiveness of the play’s central ‘argument'”.

I won’t rehearse that whole argument (yes, argument – the irony) again here; it’s in the thesis, for anyone who’s interested, and I’m very open to challenges to my reasoning, as these are ideas that will most likely come into play again later in my PhD. To return to Billington’s article, though, there are two points which are particularly revealing of the role he sees for theatre and for himself as a critic. First is the scepticism and light disdain implicit in his overview of “Hytner’s attempt to redefine what we mean by ‘theatre’,” an endeavour that Billington sums up with the vague, yet also vaguely dismissive, verdict of “artistically mixed”. This is then followed by the observation that two of Hytner’s biggest hits – War Horse and Curious Incident – “have been shows in which text is only one feature of a total theatrical experience”. Erm, doesn’t that essentially describe all theatre?

Secondly, Billington paints the NT’s relationship to the world around it as akin to that of the newspaper or news broadcaster. We have, in line with this idea of the theatre’s role, had shows “about” (I’ll only stop linking to that blog when it stops being relevant) a range of appropriately newsworthy topics: the Iraq War, the financial crisis, climate change, immigration, press corruption. And it’s doubly telling that Billington’s NT article was published by the Guardian just days after Charlotte Higgins‘ long, sprawling piece about political theatre, which departs from some strikingly similar assumptions: “Unlike music, dance and visual art it is theatre’s wordiness – the fact that it likes to place people in a room and have them talk, and disagree – that makes it the artform most closely allied to politics”. Higgins’ article also demonstrates that familiar formulation of theatre as a civic space, pointing back to Athens (where else?) and the central place of theatre in the city-state.

This all points to something that I feel is quite particular to the framing of theatre and its role in the UK. Tom Cornford (who, as an aside, was one of the people I was talking to recently about exactly the kind of narrative-forming that Billington’s article represents) has suggested that most mainstream critics in this country go into shows with “an unthinking expectation of pseudo-realistic form”. I think there’s some truth in that, certainly for some critics, but I’d suggest that it’s even more common for us (and, hands up, I include myself in this) to have the expectation that a piece of theatre will say something; that, explicitly or implicitly, it will articulate some sort of argument, which we will then assess. That’s what we’ve been taught to expect. Those are the terms on which critical discourse has established itself. And if theatre has an argument, that argument is usually expected to spring from the text. It both starts and ends with words.

But performance itself troubles that neat equation. In my current research, which is roughly speaking attempting to theorise the theatre text (emphasis on attempting), I keep encountering this idea of something in performance that is “in excess” of any text. Michael Goldman in On Drama: Boundaries of Genre, Borders of Self, for example, writes that “in drama one finds inevitably an element in excess of what can be semiotically extracted – something that is also neither irrelevant to nor […] completely independent of the text”. Benjamin Bennett, meanwhile, uses the example of Beckett’s famously precise plays in All Theater is Revolutionary Theater to demonstrate that the meaning of the text and the performance – no matter how detailed and prescriptive the former – can never be identical. Unpredictable human bodies and the evident materiality of the stage will always get in the way of that possibility.

This is a much knottier idea than the above paragraph acknowledges, but I won’t attempt to untangle it here. Instead, a pair of examples serve to begin prodding at and problematising that idea of theatre as argument. In my MA thesis, I turned to Katie Mitchell’s production of Ten Billion at the Royal Court in 2012 – an intriguing example, because it’s about as argument-like as theatre gets. After I’d finished writing that thesis, of course, Ten Billion was followed up by 2071, another show about climate change that was seemingly resolute in its lack of theatricality. Billington unsurprisingly offered high praise to both, but I find the terms of that praise really fascinating.

Both Ten Billion and 2071 are explicitly “about” climate change, delivered by scientists (Stephen Emmott and Chris Ripley respectively) and more or less following the format of the lecture. Writing about both shows, Billington acknowledges their questionable relation to theatre in almost identical terms. Reviewing Ten Billion, he writes: “Some will argue this is a lecture, not theatre. But the distinction seems to me nonsensical”. In his review of 2071, he repeats the same point with slightly more force: “Some will argue that this is not really theatre. But the idea that theatre should be exclusively reserved for fiction has been knocked on the head by a surge of documentary dramas and verbatim plays”. He adds, in relation to Ten Billion, that “Theatre is whatever we want it to be and gains immeasurably from engaging with momentous political, social or scientific issues”.

While this tells us a lot about what Billington believes theatre’s purpose to be, there’s little in either review that refers to the theatricality of these events. Most of the space is taken up by relaying and assessing the persuasiveness of the argument in question, with only fleeting mentions of its staging. Going by Billington’s analysis, the facts, figures and conclusions provided by Emmott and Rapley might as well be read in a book. Concluding his five-star review of 2071, Billington surmises that “if we look to theatre to increase our awareness of the human condition” – which he clearly does – “the evening succeeds on all counts”. But in what distinct ways does it succeed (or fail, depending on your opinion) as theatre?

Two other views, each more focused on what Ten Billion and 2071 gain or lose as theatre rather than as pure argument, offer an interesting comparison. Contrary to Billington’s entirely text-focused assessment of Ten Billion, Matt Trueman suggests that Katie Mitchell’s production complicates and problematises Emmott’s argument. “What we watch is 100% lecture and 100% theatre at the same time, and it absolutely thrives on the duality,” Trueman argues. He points to the tension between the naturalism of the staging – a form usually associated with illusion – and the hard facts of Emmott’s lecture, concluding that “we are set in a mode of doubting” as an audience. This built-in doubt, according to Trueman, mirrors the doubt we so often express in response to climate change, burying our heads in the sand when confronted with the stark reality of our planet’s plight. Mitchell, in this view, is doing something extremely sophisticated with her staging; “anyone that dismisses Ten Billion as ‘just a lecture’ is ‘just plain wrong'”.

Stewart Pringle‘s review of 2071 similarly concludes that theatre transforms the argument in question, but to wildly differing effect. Despite acknowledging that what Rapley tells us is all important information and that its presence in the Royal Court Downstairs “is itself a vital political statement”, Pringle argues that placing this lecture in a theatre context “has fatally undermined its utility as anything else”. He writes: “2071 brings something unusual to theatre (the monotonal tedium of a lecture), but theatre has brought next to nothing to it”. Having seen 2071 (I missed Ten Billion), I can agree that it was decidedly untheatrical in its presentation and distinctly dull as a result. As Pringle points out, it’s even less theatrical than most lectures.

In different ways, then, the status of Ten Billion and 2071 as theatre undermines – or at least alters – the arguments they present. The unpredictable “excess” of performance complicates matters. In the case of Ten Billion – if we go with Trueman’s opinion, anyway – the conflicting vocabularies of lecture and stage naturalism create a certain tension in our reception of Emmott’s evidence that would not be present were we reading it from the pages of a book. 2071, meanwhile, suffers from its framing as theatre, making a poor case for the necessity of its place on a stage at the same time as thrusting the theatre’s awkward materiality between audience and content. By actually putting arguments on stage, free from the clothing of narrative and metaphor, these two shows (intentionally or not) point up some of the difficulties around that prevalent “theatre as argument” view.

I want to turn again to a point I made in my MA thesis which feels relevant here: “If theatre – rather than any other public forum – is a uniquely powerful civic space, then surely there must be something it offers in its gathering of bodies that cannot be found in text alone; something in its very theatricality which challenges a critical interpretation of it as the straightforward thesis of the playwright.”

In other words, if there is something uniquely political about theatre – the nation’s “debating chamber”, as Higgins’ article has it – then it has to go beyond text. That’s not necessarily to say that only theatrical form, rather than content, can be political, as that can lead to similarly unthinking reproductions of an existing and supposedly radical set of assumptions. (I’m thinking here about certain formal gestures that were genuinely experimental and radical when they first emerged but have since congealed into their own set of tropes.) But if we limit our understanding of argument or politics to the text, then we ignore something vital about what theatre is and what it can do. After all, as Billington himself puts it, “Theatre is whatever we want it to be”.

P.S. As well as itching an intellectual scratch, this blog is something of a tentative experiment in how to connect my academic research with my thinking and writing elsewhere. In practice, of course, my dual existences often overlap, and everything tends to get thrown into a soupy (if frantically colour-coded) mixture of thoughts. But I’m interested in how to share more of my research process with a wider audience, so let me know what aspects of my PhD research you want to hear more about (“none of them” being a completely acceptable answer to that question).

Duncan Macmillan

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Originally written for The Guardian.

“There’s nothing I can do in my life to compensate for the fact that the world would be better without me in it,” says Duncan Macmillan, smiling over his coffee. It’s a bleak statement, but one that the writer and director explains is grounded in climate science. Each of us in the west, with our hefty carbon footprints, is a drain on the planet’s resources.

When we meet, Macmillan is buried deep in research about the worsening state of the environment. This is all in aid of 2071, a new project for the Royal Court that he is co-writing with climate scientistChris Rapley. For the past six months, the two men have been meeting regularly at University College London, trading their respective expertise in an attempt to bring climate change centre stage.

Directed by Katie Mitchell, 2071 follows her 2012 show Ten Billion, in which scientist Stephen Emmott painted a gloomy picture of our planet’s future. Macmillan tells me that Rapley’s outlook is more complex, challenging our understanding of how we affect the environment. “I thought I was concerned and had read well about it,” he says, “but it’s a whole other thing talking to Chris.”

“I sound like a broken record,” Macmillan laughs a moment later, catching himself using the word complicated yet again to describe Rapley’s insights. Conversation with Macmillan is punctuated with these moments of thoughtful, anxious self-awareness. Intense but amiable, he has a tendency to pause mid-thought, picking apart his own statements as soon as he makes them.

It’s a tendency that Macmillan’s plays share. Monster, the play that scooped two awards in the inaugural Bruntwood prize for playwriting, prodded uncomfortably at ideas of responsibility. In Lungs, a conversation about starting a family is folded into concerns about the state of the planet, interlacing the personal and the global. And when approaching George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Macmillan and co-adapter Robert Icke set out to “represent the challenge” of the novel’s ambiguities rather than attempting to solve them.

“I can’t speak for what theatre can or should do, but I know from my perspective I’m interested in complexity,” says Macmillan. “Chris [Rapley] keeps saying, ‘It’s a little bit more complicated than that.’ And I’ve always thought that would be a really good subtitle for any good play.”

The same complexity applies to Macmillan’s career. Increasingly, he has been working in a number of different roles, from co-directing Headlong’s 1984 with Icke to collaborating with Mitchell on her multi-media productions in mainland Europe. One frustration, however, is the pigeonholing impulse of the British theatre industry. “I think there’s a perception that the playwright is someone who writes the spoken text and that everything else is the domain of the director,” says Macmillan, adding that this is not the case with many of his projects.

Not that spoken text doesn’t interest Macmillan any more. He admits that Lungs, for instance, “is essentially just talking”. That play, which is currently on the road with touring company Paines Plough, spans one long conversation over several years. Its agonised back and forth between a couple deciding whether or not to have children was Macmillan’s attempt to wrestle with some of his own anxieties.

“I found myself worrying about these things and I didn’t know the solution,” he says, discussing the “anxiety debt” that his generation has inherited. “Putting characters on stage who talk about those anxieties makes them quite absurd. And they are. It is absurd that you can have a conversation now about whether or not you want to start a family and at the same time you can be talking about the industrial revolution.”

At the same time as travelling the UK, Lungs is also part of the repertoire at the Schaubühne in Berlin, in a German production directed by Mitchell. While the form that Macmillan initially imagined for the play – no sound, no lights, no props – was an attempt to “break out of a certain kind of formal cul-de-sac”, Mitchell’s production finds a new visual metaphor to communicate the narrative. In her version, the two actors are poised throughout on static bikes, powering the stage lights as they pedal.

“What I enjoy most as a theatre-maker and as an audience member is getting my brain to do more than one thing at once,” says Macmillan, pointing to Mitchell’s production of Lungs as one example. Another isEvery Brilliant Thing, which tours alongside Lungs this autumn. In this interactive monologue, misery and ecstasy are two sides of the same coin. The subject might be suicidal depression, but the show itself manages to be joyously life-affirming.

“It’s the least cool piece of theatre ever, in some ways,” says Macmillan. Staged in the round in Paines Plough’s portable Roundabout auditorium, the formal gesture of the show is deliberately democratic, while its message for those struggling with depression is unashamedly heartfelt. “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it.”

Like so much of Macmillan’s work, Every Brilliant Thing came out of a desire to say something that wasn’t being said. “I didn’t see anyone discussing suicidal depression in a useful or interesting or accurate way,” he says. Similarly, at the time of writing Lungs, he felt that he “wasn’t seeing enough about what it’s like to be alive now”. He positions both of these plays as interventions of a kind, adding with an apologetic smile, “that sounds really grand”.

Theatre at its best is, he says, “incredibly direct and incredibly interventionist”. He talks about Wallace Shawn’s monologue The Fever, which the actor and playwright took into people’s homes to shock them into a crisis of conscience. “I find that really inspiring.”

So is 2071 an intervention? The questions it poses – “What is happening to our planet, and what is our role in that?” – would suggest so. Still, Macmillan insists, it is not quite as simple as issuing a manifesto for saving the planet. As Rapley might say, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Photo: Geraint Lewis.

Small Acts

Originally written for Exeunt.

If global warming persists at its current rate and sea levels continue to rise, half of London might be underwater. There are maps available online outlining the potential damage; just type in your postcode and watch your neighbourhood disappear beneath the deluge.

This is just one of the grim facts alluded to throughout Platform’s operatic audio tourAnd While London Burns, created in 2006 in response to climate change and the complex, ubiquitous oil network that dominates the world’s financial markets. Earlier this week I belatedly traced this tour through the heart of the City, its skyscrapers appropriately garbed in an ominous cloak of fog that was distantly pierced by the Shard, that oddly apocalyptic splinter of steel and glass. Gazing up at buildings that had inexorably sprouted in the six years since the tour’s creation, it was hard to imagine a halt to the onward march of disaster that flooded through my earphones.

But the aim of And While London Burns is not despair. Its end point, or at least the end point that I’m told it would have reached if the audio file hadn’t hit a glitch as I stood awkwardly fiddling with my phone in the drizzle outside Lloyds, is one of action, of hope. Intersecting bleak facts with a deeply human impetus for change, the piece is delicately crafted for maximum emotional impact, making the reality of climate change powerfully felt without ever entirely eradicating an optimistic chink of light. We can still do something.

This immediately brought to mind the contrast with Ten Billion, a piece of theatre that I did not personally see but that was the subject of much conversation around the time it was showing at the Royal Court earlier this year. In essence a lecture given by scientist Stephen Emmott and placed on stage by Katie Mitchell, it was by all accounts an unflinching breakdown of how humanity, as a species, is fucked. In this vision of a future ravaged by environmental catastrophe and over-population, there is nothing to be done.

Although I’m not in any position to make judgements on the respective science behind these two pieces, they do throw up an interesting theatrical tension. Both pieces are, presumably, setting out with the intention of changing our outlook on the world in some way; And While London Burns is explicit about this aim, while it’s difficult to even read about the subject matter of Ten Billion without taking a rather blacker view of the future. The problem and source of tension, however, is the effect of this intended shift in outlook. Stepping out into Sloane Square or between the glass-fronted structures of the City, what do audiences take with them?

In the second of Chris Goode & Company’s Thompson’s Live podcasts, Artsadmin’s Judith Knight mused on just this problem. Is it better, she wondered, for theatre like Ten Billion to leave its audience with hope, however false, than to depart with incapacitating doom? The problem with being told you can do nothing is that it gives you licence to do just that. As Andrew Haydon put it in his review, there’s something “powerful and seductive” – even liberating – about the sheer nihilism of it all. No need to worry about changing our behaviour if it won’t make any difference.

And While London Burns might look our catastrophic future just as squarely in the face, but it also offers the possibility of action. Not only does it retain the promise of a small shred of hope, the very form of this piece of theatre makes it imperative for us to act in order for the piece to work. We are actors, in both the performative and real world senses of the word, made to navigate our way around the busy streets. In principle this necessity of small actions offers us belief in the fact that action on a larger scale is achievable, though in practice the difficulties of winding between human traffic and keeping in step with the audio instructions can be just as much of a obstruction to the piece as the physical obstacles that have sprung up since it was made.

While considering these questions of hope and action, another unlikely comparison presented itself. I was temporarily transported back to Battersea Arts Centre, where I spent Saturday afternoon gleefully exploring the building’s many nooks and crannies as part of interactive children’s show The Good Neighbour, a celebration of imagination, silliness and the capacity of humans to work together. An altogether different proposition, then, to either Ten Billion or And While London Burns.

Yet within the fun and games there is something distilled in this otherwise joyously silly piece of theatre that many more serious shows might take note of. In framing its frolics as an adventure, The Good Neighbour returns to its young participants, already so restricted in so many areas of life, the idea that the possibility of instigating action might lie within their power. Through the underestimated medium of play, it holds up an optimistic vision of human nature in which change is attainable as well as desirable. Unlike the distracting confusion of negotiating the suit-clogged alleyways of the City, a level of performativity that may be active but is more often than not frustrating, the gameplay here produces a sense of triumph and exhilaration.

Whether this exhilaration could be transposed onto a form of activist theatre is another question, and whether this would ultimately make a difference is an even bigger question. The extent to which theatre can inspire genuine political and social change is a well-traversed and still inconclusive debate. But if performance is to provoke action, surely the possibility of agency within the space in which it sets out its arguments is the first building block in the bridge to action beyond that space. To act, we must first believe that we are capable of action.