Finding The Words

©Richard Davenport 2012. London UK. Chris Goode Publicity Images

Originally written for Exeunt and the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting.

I’m sat on the edge of my bed, postponing the moment when I need to leave for work, staring with feverish intensity at the glowing rectangle of my phone. In these stolen minutes at the start of the day I’m reading every last word I can about Three Kingdoms, the new production at the Lyric Hammersmith that has sparked a long, sprawling critical debate. My own words are also out there, somewhere in the tangle of online criticism, and for the first time since releasing my opinions into the virtual world I feel as though I’m part of a real conversation.

I walk out of This Is How We Die at Ovalhouse with ears ringing and skin prickling. I don’t have the words to describe what I just experienced, and I’m not sure I ever will, but the search for them feels like the most important thing in the world in this moment. On the bus home, hands still shaking a little, I type an inadequate, sweary tweet on my phone and wonder if a piece of theatre will ever leave me this exhilarated again.

It’s late. Far too late. Far too late – or rather too early – to still be tapping away at my laptop with a full day’s work waiting for me in the morning. But I just can’t stop. I’m writing about Chris Goode’s The Forest and the Field, a gently mind-stretching essay of a show, and wrestling at the same time with some of the really big, essential questions about this art form that I love. What is theatre for? Why do we make it or see it? What really happens when we all gather in a room together to experience a show?

Who knew theatre could be so epic, so thrilling, so sexy? It takes about five minutes for The TEAM to steal my heart and squeeze it tight with the gorgeous, adrenaline-fuelled juggernaut that is Mission Drift, their warp-speed race through 400 years of American capitalism. Later, catching my breath and staring at a blank Word document, my only thought is: how do I possibly write something even a fraction as exciting as what I just saw?

These experiences are rare. In a lifetime of faithful theatregoing, they appear as sporadic, fleeting flashes on an otherwise calm horizon. It’s the promise of such moments, however, that keeps me going through all the boredom and mediocrity. It keeps me hopeful and it keeps me questioning, two vital qualities for anyone who wants to write about theatre with any kind of passion. No matter how many awful shows I’ve seen, the words constantly on my lips – like a much less glamorous version of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret – are “maybe this time”.

I find it hard to think of any one piece of theatre that set me on a course towards criticism. Writing about theatre, like so many other things in life, was essentially a bit of an accident. As an undergraduate student I kind of liked theatre, I kind of liked writing and I kind of wanted to start a blog – it wasn’t any more interesting or exciting than the serendipitous alchemy of those three things combined. Instead, what I find easier to pin down are the shows that subsequently kept me on that strange, coincidental path.

When first writing about Three Kingdoms and still feeling a little dazed, I suggested that “we need new ways of seeing, of experiencing, of expressing”. This is what the best theatre provokes. There’s a line that I love in Irving Wardle’s book Theatre Criticism: “In the midst of an earthquake, the critic is no better a guide than anyone else”. It’s a slightly embarrassing thought for critics, but an inspiring one for theatre-makers. They trace new contours in the world; we scrabble around to redraw the map.

Or, to put it another way, the theatre that I most want to write about is the theatre I don’t yet have the words for.

The Forest and the Field, Ovalhouse

“Everything is still problematic concerning the real effects of the Theatre” – Jean-Jacques Rousseau

As Tassos Stevens so helpfully puts it, the experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it. Therefore the beginning of my experience of The Forest and the Field dates back a while, its very first seeds planted in an idea of theatre that Chris Goode expressed in the eye of the Three Kingdoms storm. Germinating away for almost a year, the thoughts sown at that moment finally broke through the surface in a meandering thought piece that I wrote for Exeunt in anticipation of seeing this show, which feels worth including again here. Not a preview as such, but rather a pre-review. A review in anticipation.

“All the world’s a stage”. It’s an almost meaninglessly ubiquitous snippet of the Bard that, as a theatre writer, I ought to have a dread of opening with. Yet those five painfully over-quoted words carry an intriguing implication. Because if we really do conceive of the world as a stage and our everyday exchanges as another kind of performance upon it, what does that do to theatre itself? And what impact does that understanding of the world have on the relationship between the reality of the theatre and the reality outside?

As these questions might suggest, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about theatre and the wider world – not so much in the sense of whether or not theatre can make a difference in the world beyond the space of its performance, which is an argument so often short-circuited by being debated in disingenuous or misguided terms, but more in the sense of how we imagine theatre’s place within society. This is partly due to a weekly seminar that has had me returning to – and in some cases reading for the first time – the series of relationships between theatre and society that have been theorized over the centuries: Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Schiller, to name just a few of the headliners. Whether conceiving of that relationship as vexed or harmonious, the obsession with it is strikingly persistent.

Such thoughts have also surfaced partly in anticipation of Chris Goode & Company’s The Forest and the Field, which I’ll be seeing at Ovalhouse this week. As the Ovalhouse website helpfully informs me, this is “a gently seductive, immersive piece of non-fiction storytelling, which asks its audience to look at themselves, and to consider what we’re all doing when we meet in a theatre space”. Unsurprisingly, it’s that last little bit that most interests me. I didn’t see the piece’s previous incarnation back in 2009, but Chris’s distinction between “the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things” has been snagged on my brain long enough to made me hungry to interrogate that idea further, even if – as I suspect – I’m not fully up to the task.

The answer to that question of what we’re all doing in a theatre space might seem staggeringly obvious. Surely we are gathered together in one place, usually under the anonymous blanket of darkness, to watch other people perform. At the end we will probably applaud. We might, hopefully, think about what we’ve seen. The optimist might even insist that we leave the theatre changed in some way, galvanised to meet the challenges of the world outside.

My use of the word “outside” is not accidental. The concept of “outside”, naturally paired with “inside” as its polar opposite, seems to haunt much theatre and the discussion that surrounds it. Inside or outside the bounds of the performance event, part of or on the fringes of traditionally understood definitions of theatre, internal or external to the text. Understood in such dichotomised terms, theatre is always inside, referring to an outside that is ever separate and elsewhere. If all the world really is a stage, then perhaps the theatre is its rehearsal space.

But what my initial, crude description of what theatre does deliberately neglects is any sense of real action or making within the sphere of the event. Something happens in that space between the people who occupy it. It might have a bearing on or a certain understanding of the world beyond those four walls – in fact, it would be fairly impossible for it not to have some kind of relationship, however big or small, with the society in which it exists – but it isn’t simply a suspended act, somehow separate and sealed off from its “real” surroundings. Theatre is always in some way doing and making, perhaps at the same time as representing, and that doing is an act in and of itself, whether or not it offers a model for wider change. When thought of in this way, inside and outside – those troubling ideas that we stubbornly try not to taint with one another – become sort of irrelevant. The theatre event is both and neither and a mashed up mixture of the two.

While these confused and simplified thoughts lack nuance, at the heart of the image of theatre I’m beginning to form is a melting of the divisions drawn by the thinkers I find myself reading each week. Running through many of their arguments, whether for or against theatre and its position within society, is an assumption that theatre does one of two things: create through its form an ideal (or not so ideal, depending on the perspective) version of society within the space of the theatre event, or communicate and thus teach a mode of interacting with one another that is then to be applied to society outside. An either/or situation, not bridged by an “and”.

Although the context and exact terms of these discussions differ, there seems to be – at least to my mind – a certain similarity with Chris’s differentiation between “the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things”. Showing versus making, passive representation versus active enactment. What I find myself wanting to ask is whether these two functions can occur at once. Can theatre not be aware of what it’s making within the space and simultaneously offer through a form of showing or representation a new way of looking at the world?

Theatre is constantly and often unhelpfully attended by binaries – entertaining and pedagogical, dramatic and postdramatic, text based and non-text based – the most enduring of which is arguably the line it seems to draw between fiction and reality, play world and real world, whether this line is sketched at the edge of the stage or intersects with the performance itself. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that again and again its purpose has been starkly seen as either demonstrating or doing, acting as performance or acting as action. But is it really so hard to imagine that it might be both?

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching, and this is all that is needed for an of theatre to be engaged” – Peter Brook

First of all, there is no such thing as an empty space. This is important. As soon as our gaze fills the space, it can no longer be empty. It’s the paradox at the heart of Peter Brook’s famous statement, and a starting point of sorts for The Forest and the Field, Chris Goode & Company’s quiet yet powerful meditation on what the hell we’re all doing when we gather together in the theatre. It’s framed as an act of storytelling, but it feels more like a gentle and occasionally troubling dream, vitally prodding at questions that permeate our modern experience of theatregoing. What do we as an audience want? What are we doing when we meet in a theatre space? Can theatre really change anything, or is it indeed theatre and our engagement with it that needs to change?

Talking of starting points, it now feels overwhelmingly apt that I began my musings on theatre and the world with a quote from Shakespeare. Because The Forest and the Field is drenched in the Bard, from the tremulous “oh” that opens Henry V to the intoxicating island of The Tempest, recognising the extraordinary extent to which Shakespeare defines our understandings of theatre. Shakespeare also offers one of the key locations of the title: the forest. This might be an actual forest, as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, or it could be the island of The Tempest, the chaotic society of Illyria in Twelfth Night, the furious storm that punctures King Lear – liminal spaces, spaces that enact a certain transformation.

That “oh” that I mention from Henry V is just one of many Os dotted throughout the piece: the groaning animal “oh” of wanting; the wooden O of the original Globe theatre; the O of the appropriately shaped Ovalhouse, copied again in the circular, inward facing arrangement of the audience. O is of course also zero, a void, nothing. An empty space.

The Forest and the Field is challenging that empty space, as well as challenging the perceived emptiness of the theatre as a place apart from the rest of the world. It primarily throws open a space – not empty, but full of our thoughts and gazes – for reflecting, a space in which we might reconsider our understanding of theatre and how it works. This mainly takes the form of Chris Goode speaking to the audience as he moves around the space, while fellow performer Tom Ross-Williams adopts the more traditional role of “actor”, reciting speeches from Shakespeare and impersonating a series of figures, from Brook himself to John Cage to O.J. Simpson.

This foregrounding of the practice of acting feels significant within a piece that is deeply concerned with what theatre does, presenting us with a frame in which the idea of the actor and the actor’s role can be seen afresh. The actor is spoken of as appearing as both self and other; as spectators, we thus engage in simultaneous processes of identification and confrontation. Through the dialogue that this “acting” enters with Chris’s more direct address, we are made aware of such processes, forcing our attention on not just how theatre itself works but how we as audience members work with it.

It’s also worth pausing on that notion of the frame for a moment. As already noted, the space is arranged in a rough circle, with audience members seated on a variety of levels and in variety of positions around it. The middle of the room, at the centre of the O, is packed with a thin layer of earth, while pot plants are dotted around the audience and a large tree branch sits at the edge of the performance space. This is an evocation of the forest in the title, perhaps, but it’s a forest that we already seem to be on our way out of, the foliage thinning. Change, it suggests, is already underway. Meanwhile the light that is used throughout the piece, often illuminating the audience and denying distinctions between spectators and performers, is pointedly artificial; we are genially introduced to the technicians sitting on a raised platform in the corner, highlighting their presence. Mechanisms are visible, uncovered – or at least almost uncovered. The clothing is never quite fully stripped away.

“To be naked is to be oneself.
To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself” – John Berger

Nakedness – or rather the idea of nakedness – threads its way throughout the piece. I say the idea of nakedness because, despite the rather wonderful notice on the door warning that “this piece contains nudity and a cat” (the latter seemed to be a bit shy on the night I attended), what we see in the performance is just that – nudity. It is never true nakedness, though nakedness is what it self-declaredly aspires to. Naked body, naked earth, naked desire. The excruciating nakedness of that wide, round “oh” of wanting. As the piece itself asks, what would it take for us to bare our naked desire, to openly say aloud what we want? Can the theatre ever become a space in which this might be possible?

Through such questions, we are repeatedly asked to contemplate what theatre might be capable of achieving. Theatre’s potential is often located in its liveness, a term that we all tend to be very fond of. It suggests something exciting, something immediate, something radically opposed to a culture of distant and deferred digital communication. That notion of opposition might just be key, as it’s arguably only through the rise of a mediated, non-live (depending of course on how we define and understand “live”, a debate far too large and complicated to include here) culture that “liveness” has gained its meaning and its supposedly radical power.

This is something that The Forest and the Field lightly plays with, quietly exploiting our mediatised ways of seeing (the unavoidable echo of John Berger in that phrase feeling utterly apt in the context of this show). At one end of the space, a projector screen is suspended from the ceiling, which Chris explains was built into the show before they decided not to use video. At various points throughout, a light is shone onto the screen and Chris asks us to look at it, imagining the film sequences that are not there. In this way, recorded media – a form that has irrevocably changed our mode of perception and our understanding of the live – is only present in its absence. By pointedly not including such media, we are reawakened to its constant background presence in our lives and the saturation of our culture with its tropes and particular models of perception. This is also, of course, just another empty but not empty space onto which we project our own images.

There are other, less signposted ways in which recorded and digital media seeps into the piece. One thing that struck me about all the external material and references that are used and cited (perhaps as a way of blurring those lines between inside and outside, theatre and world, as well as recalling Barthes’ idea of the text as a “tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”) was the lack of a structuring cultural hierarchy. A ballad from Carousel sits alongside snippets of Johns Cage and Berger; the plentiful nods to Shakespeare are joined by an extract from O.J. Simpson’s book. Notions of high and low art don’t really enter the equation (although of course they equally never completely disappear, as my noting of these contrasts bluntly demonstrates), which perhaps hints at the breakdown of other hierarchies. It’s all quotation, all part of the fabric of modern life, of which theatre is also a part.

In the series of dream sequences that punctuate the show, using more self-consciously “theatrical” means of expression, media-soaked ways of seeing the world are again brought into play, as are other influences of today’s world. Our subconscious playgrounds take the shape of sensational movie sequences or are filled with row upon row of consumer goods we might buy – endless, tyrannical “freedom of choice”. This conjures the “synthetic wanting” of capitalism, where we can have anything we want but in fact we don’t want anything – a marked and deliberate contrast with that wanting that is so profound it can only express itself through a moaned “oh”, an absence of words. By inserting this plastic desire into the frame of a dream, its permeation is absolute; dreams and reality have become indistinguishable, and the dreaming space of the theatre takes on a strange new identity.

Gazing out of the train window, a tree is just visible over the jagged fences that line the railway, its bare, crooked branches laden with cuddly toys – a grubby menagerie of childhood remnants. Three days later, in the empty yet not empty space of Ovalhouse, another tree, dead and wrenched from nature, glares out at the audience. This tree is draped with a scarf, a plastic doll, one forlorn half of a Christmas cracker. The rescued fragments of performance.

“Performance’s only life is in the present […] Performance’s being […] becomes itself through disappearance” – Peggy Phelan

During one dream sequence, Chris floats the premise that theatre, like so much human ritual, might gain a meaning through its ending. I’m instantly reminded of Peggy Phelan’s insistence on the disappearance of performance, which she claims as the art form’s essential attribute; for Chris, though, this is a problem rather than a liberation, an impossible puzzle of how to cling on to puffs of smoke.

It’s a concern that seems to be validated in the process of writing, itself a kind of performative act. Already the performance is slipping away from me, its memory increasingly clouded in my mind, more so with every moment that passes and every word that I write. But isn’t this thought and writing also a kind of extension of the piece? It’s a remnant of sorts, yes, but also a continuation. And without the one thing ending, the other would not be able to gain shape and meaning.

“We are not free and the sky can still fall on our heads. And above all else, theatre is made to teach us this” – Antonin Artaud

For all its bleak implication, I like the first part of that quote – particularly the image of the sky falling on our heads. It recalls childish fears, summoning those early moments of realisation that the world is capable of collapsing around us. And that childishness seems fitting, as this is something that we first learn as a child, taught by the experience of growing up, but that we later forget and need to be re-taught – if we agree with Artaud – by theatre. It’s at odds with the common idea that theatre is about a fictional elsewhere, that in the theatre we go to hear confessions in the conditional, a world predicated on the “what if”. But today, Chris suggests, theatre might be a space in which to assert the “what is” in the middle of the “what if” that has expanded outwards to swallow all of modern urban life. In the theatre, we need to be reminded of the way the world really is.

There seems, however, to be a certain contradiction in some of what The Forest and the Field is ultimately suggesting. Theatre, if I’ve understood correctly, needs to push against the stultifying “what if” with an assertion of “what is”, a distinction that seemingly makes it separate from the conditionality of the world in which it exists. But at the same time we are told that theatre is “just one small part of everywhere”, in the same way that “dreams are edgeless”. Theatre is and isn’t different to the rest of the world. Or maybe this is in fact doing exactly what I was trying to grasp at in the piece I wrote before seeing the show, confusing that artificial line between inside and outside.

Before I tie my brain in too many knots, I wonder if these are misplaced concerns. Perhaps the most revelatory and intoxicatingly optimistic realisation of the piece is that, as Chris points out, “we haven’t made all the theatre yet”. This isn’t it yet – its yearningly outstretched fingers never quite graze the ideal that Chris is aspiring to – but it also doesn’t have to be. Because of course the accusation that theatre can’t change the world is really just saying that it hasn’t found a way to change the world yet. In a world that’s constantly changing, the accusation doesn’t mean that theatre might not still find a form through which it can initiate that change.

All the way through this response, I’ve kept using the word “piece”. Part of that is just lazy, imprecise writing; as a critic, it’s one of many terms that I use interchangeably when talking about the production in question, even though each of those terms implies something slightly different. But there’s also something a little more precise and considered about that choice of word here.

During a talk at the Bush Theatre’s RADAR season, Chris picked up on this insistent use of “piece” by both the people making theatre and the people writing about it. In response, he posed a challenging series of questions: “If what I make, if what we make, are ‘pieces’, then what’s the whole of which each of those pieces is a piece? And how can I make the work that I share with audiences, and with my fellow artists, representative in every case of the whole of what I want? Socially, politically, sexually. What are the theatrical forms and structures that will enable me to want in public everything I want in private?”

I don’t know the answers to any of those questions, and I’m not entirely sure The Forest and the Field does either. But it’s sort of liberating to think of this show as not just a solitary, isolated piece and instead to think of it as one piece of a larger whole. We haven’t made the whole yet, and perhaps we don’t yet know how to make it, but we can at least make a start on the pieces.

One O, two Os, three Os. A chain, like the interlinked, messily pritt-sticked rings of paper once hung up around the house at Christmas. You can’t make nothing out of nothing. A double negative, recalling the insistent refrain of Kieran Hurley’s Beats: “it doesn’t mean nothing”. It doesn’t mean nothing.

P.S. The photos of various bits of forest dotted throughout are all mine, taken near my parents’ house in Sussex an in the New Forest. As well as feeling appropriate, it seemed only fair to break up the horrendous volume of words with a bit of visual interest.