Theatre in Wales

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

Several Kinds of Bad

Times, Guardian, Blogs et al in 2016

A lot of work goes into making a piece of performance. That is a bit of a truism; true also that outsiders have small idea how much it takes. So at the least onlookers could respond in a way that reflected, even if only to a tiny degree, the care and industry that have made the work. More frequently than not commentators fail to match the quality of the makers.

The Internet has grown to 5.9% of world output and its effects on Africa and Asia are particularly transformative. Whether it has aided the arts that much is up for a lively debate. It has certainly helped lobbyists. I have a watchful eye for the new books on theatre that are of interest and from publishers of seriousness. I do not look out for articles and occasional writing on theatre. But there is an algorithm that brings articles my way, a human rather than mathematical method. So thanks to Meredydd Barker, Yvonne Murphy, Simon Harris, Carmen Medway-Stephens and Guy O'Donnell principally for their scanning, selecting and highlighting.

Good comment is like a good person. It speaks for itself. The less satisfactory comment comes in different forms. What unites them is hamartia, a word with its origin in the Greek for “archer”, less an issue of right versus wrong than missing the mark. The mark-missing comes in predictable forms but three are in the lead.

The first is nonsense. “Immersive experiences have become almost as ubiquitous in the UK as Cafés [sic] with Wi-Fi.” It is an absurd statement for an activity that attracts a tiny minority. Then there are the weasel words. “Conventional actor training, which still forms most of the training available to actors in formal education in the UK, does not provide actors with an awareness of a live audience that might be invited to participate.”

By “conventional training” that is RWCMD and the other top-rank academies. If a director cannot work with actors who have given their all to graduate from a top college then that says more about the directorial calibre than the actors. In this case the whole “article” reveals itself only at the end. It is an advertisement in disguise to get young people to cough up thousands for a qualification from an institution with no theatre heritage.

Art looks to attention at the individual level. Rarely do generalisations add much. A radio discussion on July 30th had a speaker declare, unchallenged by the interviewer, that “science is logical while artists are intuitive.” In print generalisations, often extracted for headlines, are there for clicks and advertising. Thus “the industry is having to take safer and safer decisions.” But the industry of theatre covers hundreds of venues and companies. There is no lack of innovation.

Sarah Kane had a revival in 2016 that sold out. “Why do plays about sex and violence written by women still shock?” ran the article byline. The answer is they do not as a rule although Sarah Kane does. The article wobbled around to include Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell. Inevitably a doctorate was lurking in the shadows “The Displayed Body and its Agency: Pleasure, Violence and Humiliation in Contemporary Feminist Performance.” But a piece of written speculation based upon itself is not theatre.

In this case readers knew what they were being fed. The feedback led with “Nothing is destroying the Guardian more than these formulaic, easy written, identity politics driven articles. We get about a dozen a week and they're always hung on a contentious, arbitrary premise as well” followed by a “What a spectacularly stupid article”. “There's a vast difference between Highsmith's brilliant writing and dangerous moral complexity and a PhD student sitting on top of a table inserting the handle of a knife...and smashing balloons filled with tomato sauce against the knife so they explode.”

On the other hand a woman artist of real accomplishment gets called “a singer of temporal lapses, gaps, translations, missed connections and joyful vibrancy. The performance texts collected here show depth, pain and pleasure. They squeeze the reader...” The sheer waffle measure is high. The giveaway is there when the word “play” is deleted in favour of “text.”

Early in the year David Hare was given pages of exegesis as to “Why the Tory Project is Bust.” But the words are wrong. The party in power is not a “project”. It is a mechanism for power and, like it or not, it is doing pretty well in 2016. Another high speculator asks “How do we create creativity in a community, how do we support leadership in a community, how do we enable people to use the arts to find themselves, and problem-solve about how we might collectively create a better future for everyone?” Were these speculations to be translated into actuality the results would most likely be tendentious. Art in this writer's view has a motive “that sense of creating aspiration and having an internationalist view of the world. What is Wales' place in the world, and how might we want to help shape that?” If that is the base the art that comes into effect will be rough-hewn. Art that seeks only to project a collective unexamined orthodoxy is hardly worth the name.

Words are descriptors. They can be crisp and direct or they can be slippery and deceptive. When the Times writes of a play that it is “chaotic cramped and rushed” it is a view. When another commentator pastes up “uncompromising and unflinching”of a theatre piece that is plain cosy it is obvious that he has not seen it. He is not alone . The Daily Telegraph published a review of an exhibition at the National Museum, unfriendly in tone, without the reviewer ever leaving Canary Wharf. The first requirement is that a reporter at least be there. The artists who actually sweat the work into being do not want lobbying or speculation. Attention is not a lot to ask for.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
27 December 2016


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