Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Should our theatres do more to challenge audiences

Bad Criticism & Bad Art

The prompting of this debate on 27th February between theatre writers was Katie Mitchell’s staging of Sarah Kane’s “Cleansed”. It jumped away from the arts pages to the news sections on account of its impact, five audience members reportedly fainting. The good news that went unreported was that there was not a seat to be had. If a play sells that is inconquerably good.

The Trueman side of the exchange is not persuasive. Comparisons with Shakespeare and Tarantino first, then “Kane asks us to make sense of what we’re watching and, crucially, what we’re feeling.” This is obscure since a human being is a meaning-making mechanism. All phenomena of perception are up for evaluation. “Too often British theatre gives us all the answers.” This is jejune since it generalises without specificity and secondly a work of art is not a question and answer session. “A lot of plays tell us exactly what they’re talking about, what we should think, when to laugh, cry and clap.” This is just a definition of bad art.

The conversation moves to “Jerry Springer” and “The Book of Mormon”. “Is the blasphemy really shocking audiences, who not only choose to attend but pay for the privilege, or is our reaction a kind of mock shock?” These shows sold because they were fun theatre. The Mormon church itself advertised in “The Book of Mormon” programme. The truth is that theatre on religion is a massive and collective self-censorship- quite rightly based on past experience. Literature fills the gap that theatre leaves vacant.

This notion of “challenge” is slippery and never addressed in rigour. By the time challenge has been found in Julie Taymor doing “the Lion King” or “Bend It Like Beckham” it is slithering all over the place. Throw in wet metaphors like “We need more uncertainty: theatre that challenges us to find our own route through” and it is a reminder that comment on theatre as generalisation is pretty much a shallow time-waster.

Happily, a real play-maker pitches in to pivot the issue back to the specific. Since Doug Lucie was the author behind one of my best nights out ever, his is a voice worth the listening to. That does not mean agreement. “To expect me to see “Cleansed” or “Blasted” and feel challenged is rather insulting” writes Lucie “They don't “challenge” anything I know, think or believe - they offer me the opportunity of being inside the interior world of an immature but talented writer who wanted to shock me by showing me things I already knew. A kind of emotionally authoritarian theatre that has no awareness of its own innate ridiculousness. It’s as if the wilder reaches of Edinburgh Fringe drama have been taken up by self-proclaimed academic and internet theatre experts and with a wave of their hand, everything's changed. I think we've been here before….we learned, we challenged ourselves in different ways as we grew up and out of adolescent horror."

Lucie is right in one sense. Commentators and theatre have been here before. The conversations are much the same as fifty years ago. Just look to Robert Cushman on Kaprow or the Living Theatre. But then no arts editor will accept a critic who makes reference outside the last year. But the notion that humans live within an all-consuming present is just a fashion. Most societies would be baffled by it. Just look to June 23rd where an imagined past was part-cause for the outcome. It is also of course a tactic. A shrill assertion of an all-consuming present-ness is a tactic for wringing money out of funding institutions.

As to the whole slippery issue of “challenge” dramatists are the best of voices. Mark Ravenhill: “Art doesn’t educate or inform or make you a better citizen. We belittle it when we make it into information.”

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
29 June 2016


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